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.)