With his two previous films, Sangre (2005) and Los Bastardos (2008), Amat Escalante has been finding his way between self-conscious minimalism and ball-busting shock, and with Heli -- a dead-eyed, lyrical art film that kicks you in the throat -- he strides ever closer to a war-zone balance, a style that dovetails poetic resonance and unblinking horror. In the meantime, he and his mentor, Carlos Reygadas, have rediscovered the totemic possibilities of the Mexican landscape, physical and social, in ways no one has since Luis Buñuel.
Escalante tells you how it's going to be with the first composition: looking down at two bludgeoned and duct-taped young men unconscious in a truck bed, boot on face, from which the camera gradually pivots up and dollies forward, into the cab, gazing through the windshield at the road and the late afternoon sun. One of the victims is immediately lynched off a bridge and left swinging, receding in the distance as we drive away, before the film leaps backward into the mild domestic world of Heli (Armando Espitia), a twentysomething factory worker living with his disinterested young wife and baby, his aging father, and his 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara).
The narrative, like an avalanche that begins with falling pebbles, couldn't be simpler, foreshadowed by the innocent flipbook cartoons Heli idly finds drawn in the margins of Estela's school textbook. Secrets explode, precipitating a rain of cartel mayhem. The fallout, like the criminal reality, abides by no rules, and Heli has a handful of Holy Shit moments few casual American filmgoers will be prepared for. (The puppy alone could spur a few civil tort suits against the filmmakers.)