The main talking point of this empty-headed thriller from Mexican director Amat Escalante is a sure-to-be-notorious instance of penis incineration—a dubious distinction. The other indignities suffered by the movie’s characters—a Guanajuato family trying to earn an honest living—are similarly horrid and relentless. Trouble begins when the youngest sibling, 12-year-old Estela (Andrea Vergara), starts dating a 17-year-old special-forces cadet (Juan Eduardo Palacios). He has an idea to steal and sell some confiscated packets of cocaine so the two of them can get married. But this angers Estela’s older brother, auto-plant worker Heli (Armando Espitia), who discards the drugs and unfortunately earns the retributive ire of the corrupt police force.
A puppy’s neck is casually broken, multiple beatings are administered, gang rape is implied, and a man is hung from a bridge as a message of…something or other. The static shots of desolate landscapes are so self-serious they tip over into parody, while the unflinching portrayals of violence don’t illuminate the story’s theme (in this case, the barbarous machismo and crookedness inherent in modern-day Mexico) so much as deaden a viewer’s senses with torture-porn nihilism. Escalante is nowhere near the level of one of Heli’s producers, filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, whose prankish, provocative explorations of similar subject matter (like Battle in Heaven and Post Tenebras Lux) more often attain profundity.
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