In a corrupt and broken Mexican society, Heli sees an innocent family bring violent retribution on themselves when they unwittingly cross a brutal drug cartel.
Day Of The Dead by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Winner of the Best Director in 2013’s Cannes Film Festival, director/writer Amat Escalante’s film starts with one of the most arresting opening scenes ever. On the metal floor in the back of a pick-up as it bumps along a dusty road, a boot crushes a bloodied head. It’s a very long take and eventually the camera pulls back to show there are two bodies, both bloodstained, one half-naked – maybe unconscious, maybe dead. When it eventually stops, one body is taken out by a group of men in uniform and hanged, dangled from a pedestrian bridge over a road.
Then we find out how this came about. Twenty-year-old Heli (Armando Espitia) lives with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), baby, his father (Ramon Alvarez) and 13-year-old, naïve younger sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) in Guanajuato. They are a working-class family scraping a living in a settlement in a harsh desert landscape of dirt roads, deserted houses, no discernable economy, the only sign of life being the Japanese car factory where Heli and his father work in dead-end assembly-line jobs. Schoolgirl Estela, who looks even younger than her years in her school uniform white socks, is infatuated with an older boyfriend, 17-year-old Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), an army cadet. In a PR exercise, the army make a public bonfire of drugs they have seized, and Beto steals two bags of cocaine a corrupt general has hidden, thinking to sell them so he and Estela can elope. He persuades her to let him hide them in the water tank on the roof of her house.
This foolhardy theft sets tragedy in motion. It leads to sudden and violent retribution by the drugs gang, enforced by men dressed in special police or military uniform, who smash their way into Heli’s house, killing at random until they are told where to find the stolen cocaine – which, unfortunately for everyone, Heli had destroyed when he found it. Beto and Heli are taken to a remote house and Beto is callously tortured in a prolonged scene, watched by a family of three bored young boys who barely look up from their video games. “What’s this one done?” one asks. “Who knows,” is the uninterested reply. The movements of the character in the video game on screen behind Beto as he hangs, trussed, from a hook in the living room ceiling mimic the blows of the cricket bat raining down on him, with the boys ordered to take their turn as if he’s a piece of meat. And when Beto’s genitals are doused with spirit and set on fire, the camera is on Heli’s face and his reactions as, gagged and bound, he lies on the floor watching, believing he will be next.
And that is typical of Escalante’s elliptical technique. Often the narrative is carried through reaction shots, or the voices or sound effects of something happening out of shot, which means we create our own horror. Estela is abducted with the two boys – we hear, rather than see, what is being done to her. Shots are beautifully framed: the wild desert landscapes that dwarf the human beings; and a scene of murder is seen from a distance through the frame of a narrow window. Colour too tells a story: intense drama is played out in interiors and exteriors of dark, dirty earthy colours. In contrast, the car factory where Heli and his father work is created in shiny metal blues and yellows.
Heli returns home to a crime scene, his father murdered, but Estela is still missing – alive or dead? No one knows or seems to care. Too scared to inform on the drug cartel, Heli tells the police he knows nothing so they assume he is guilty of drug dealing, and won’t give him justice by investigating his father’s murder. The female detective bizarrely demands sexual favours before she will open a case to start a search for his sister. It’s a tribute to Escalante’s technique and the dangerous atmosphere he has created that by now any approaching headlights as he sits in the car with her imply menace. The pervading violence now starts to infiltrate all areas of Heli’s life, including his relationship with his wife.
Months pass. Estela staggers home, pregnant, thrown out by the men who had kept her, and so traumatised that she is mute. This drives Heli to an act of revenge that shows how much he has been changed and damaged. There’s a shot of Estela lying on a couch holding Heli’s baby as the wind blows through net curtains, while we hear the noises of Heli and his wife making love in another room– something he had frustratedly and increasingly violently been trying to achieve from the start . It seems life is carrying on but the violent society Escalante portrays is so corrupt and broken that what hope can there be for the next generation? The opening scene is reminiscent of George Orwell’s “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
It’s Escalante’s third movie after Sangre and Los Bastardos, set in Guanajuato where he grew up, a region where drug violence is notoriously rife. He says people there live in fear, and killings, decapitations and hangings are shown without restraint in the media. All the parts are played by non-professional actors, except for Ramon Alvarez, and Escalante gets powerful performances from them.
Of the resonant opening scene, Escalente says, “I always intended to start the film with this image: a man hanging above a bridge. This image is very common in Mexico. You see that sort of thing all the time in newspapers. I wanted to show it outside of its context, and then go back along the narrative thread to reveal the reality it encloses. Behind each image like that, there is a human tragedy, innocent victims of indiscriminate violence. In short, a story that has to be told, otherwise people will always reassure themselves by thinking that the man hanging above that bridge deserved it.”
Heli is released on 23rd May 2014 in the UK