REVIEW ROUND-UP: ‘Heli’ Kicks Off Cannes Competition on a Violent Surge

HeliYou hear that off in the distance? You probably can’t, and we can’t either, because it’s the sound of cinemas a-whirring in Cannes, France. The 66th Cannes Film Festival has kicked off in grand fashion, with The Great Gatsby getting a second wind of divided responses from its opening night showing. The competition slate, however, got off to a much smaller, grittier start with Mexican director Amat Escalante’s Heli.

Amongst the tweets that greeted the film immediately after its debut:

@JustinCChang: Come for the gratuitous animal cruelty, stay for the genital immolation.
@daveyjenkins: Salo, Antichrist – meet your new best bud. The groincore genre is born.
@williambgoss: If you wanted Miss Bala to be more like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, then this is the movie for you.

Clearly this isn’t one teen girls will be rushing out to theaters in the same demand as the Luhrmann-DiCaprio film. The film’s plot follows a 12-year-old girl who falls in love with a police cadet who plans to run away with her. Ain’t that just the stuff immortal romances are made of?

HeliComparisons to other violent crime films are apt and plentiful, but Heli sounds particularly gruesome to boot with its dry devastation. The critics certainly admire the film’s balls (ew, I feel like just walked into a gross pun there), but many are left wanting something deeper or more personal. Davey Jenkins of Little White Lies feels the films doesn’t have much to offer beyond the gratuitous imagery.

It’d probably be overselling Escalante’s inexorable, hyperviolent hellride to say that the devil here is in the detail, as it’s a film that’s so bereft of any kind of hope, justice or empathy that it’s hard not take the director’s posturing sense of nihilism as some kind of sick joke. Are we really supposed to take seriously the fake rolling news footage of a miniature, make-shift gore sculpture of three severed heads on the bonnet of car? It’s the sort of touch that appears like it should be loaded with satirical intent, but in fact it’s just another small component of the director’s operatically bleak vision of contemporary Mexican life.

The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth offers more respect for the film, though agrees it’s on the more despairing end of things.

Moments of humor and surrealism (Heli’s wife visiting a palm reader randomly sees a drumkit and a man wearing wild cowboy boots at the edges of the scene) at least partially give the audience a break, but by and large, “Heli” is a despairing, bleak watch. It’s a slow, but unrelenting look at one young man’s punishing loss of innocence amongst a society that has already decayed beyond understanding. There is not much optimism in the view held by Escalante, who in the film’s gorgeous closing scene (with drapes blowing in the breeze with far more purpose than in “The Great Gatsby“), offers the notion that any hope of moral and spiritual recovery lies in the next generation who is already irreparably damaged, and perhaps forever lost.

William Goss over at MSN.com sums up the general mood about the film in tying up his review.

…by the end, “Heli” ultimately comes off as an empty piece of provocation, devoid of the prolonged visceral charge of a film like “Bala,” revealing nothing new about the cartels and corruption that continue to hold a cruel reign over local citizens. Escalante might earn his fair share of gasps, but his film never says much to then fill that silence.

So Heli may be a tough sell for the Spielberg-led jury to get behind, but it’s the kind of uncowering film we’re glad Theirry Fremaux slid into the competition. Let’s hope the rest of the festival is just as risky, if with a little more substance. But while we’re slightly on the subject, how gorgeous is this jury? I know Nicole Kidman steals the focus in any image, but damn, does Lynne Ramsay clean up well after a break-up!

Cannes Jury

(Left to Right) Lynne Ramsay, Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan, Christoph Waltz, Naomi Kawase and Christian Mungiu.

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