Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Mexico/Netherlands/Germany/, . , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Screenplay by , Amat Escalante, additional screenplay material by , . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by Daniela Schneider, . Film Editing by .
The high stakes of living in an economically depressed Mexican village are set up in the opening shots of this hard-hitting drama, in which members of a drug cartel hang a dead body from a highway for everyone to see the cost of crossing their interests.
We then meet a small family living in a humble house, their situation detailed for us in a brief scene in which Heli () opens the door to a census taker and answers her questions: he and his father work at the nearby car factory, his little sister Estela is in school and his wife of one year, Sabrina, has just had their baby son Santiago.
Estela, who is barely thirteen, has fallen in love with a police trainee named Beto who pressures her to go all the way between his brutal boot camp training sessions, which include one sequence in which he is forced to roll around in his own vomit. He is part of a team that has seized possession of a giant payload of cocaine and marijuana that the local government is destroying, holding public ceremonies to show how effective they are at controlling crime, but Beto has stolen a few packages for himself that he plans to sell in order to finance his and Estela’s marriage.
Without thinking about the danger involved, Estela lets him hide the drugs at her house, but Heli quickly finds them and destroys them, which then leads to unmitigated disaster. Estela disappears, Heli is tied up and taken to be tortured, and if any of these characters survive it will be a miracle, but the part that really makes director Amat Escalante miserable about all of this is how little choice anyone has in anything that we see them subjected to.
When Heli seeks help to find his missing sister, he discovers that the police aren’t that much more morally reliable than the drug dealers were, and have fewer resources, which means that people who are vulnerable to getting involved in illegal trade because of a lack of better options, and are then vulnerable to physical trauma because of that, have to simply endure living in this purgatory.
Escalante conjures up a collection of inviting characters and gives the film an arresting look, thankfully able to put across brutal material without overdoing any indulgence in explicit imagery (this isn’t the pretentious lecturing of Carlos Reygadas, for instance). Where he missteps is in often giving the impression that he hasn’t thought much beyond the setup, the rabbit hole these people fall into is very deep but their way out of it feels suspiciously convenient. A number of the performances come across as amateurs getting their first shot, but Espitia’s sensitive, charismatic work grounds the entire film in something sympathetic and memorable.
Cannes Film Festival Award: Best Director (Amat Escalante)