No film festival is complete without a polarizing entry. For the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, that movie is Heli.
Audiences leaving Amat Escalante's latest film earlier this week let out a collective sigh after witnessing the director's brutal portrayal of Mexico. The film follows twentysomething Heli (Armando Espitia) as he's thrust into his home's terrifying underbelly. His tween sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) and her 17-year-old boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacio) inadvertently put Heli and his family in the crosshairs of drug dealing thugs after stealing a few kilos of cocaine. With no remorse, the violent criminals execute their revenge. It's not pretty.
Heli never breaches the surface while tackling ideas of male identity and the ripple of effects of trauma, but Escalante's film works on a purely visceral level. He's a provocateur, composing beautiful shot after beautiful shot only to fill them with shocking imagery. Heli is not for the faint of heart. Although once the film hits American shores, one particular moment may strike a nerve with the Internet in the same phenomenon fashion that helped Lars von Trier's Antichrist become a recognizable title.
When Heli, Estela, and Beto are captured by the drug dealers, they're hauled away to be properly beaten to mush. It's here Escalante steers his plodding film straight into the pits of hell — a whiplash to the audience. Heli and Beto are taken to a living room/torture chamber, complete with ceiling hooks, flogging paddles, and a Nintendo Wii. The pain is inflicted in a frighteningly casual manner — Beto is chained up to hang in the middle of room as both young adults and kids watch. After 30 smacks to the back, Escalante plays his wild card: the cronies dowse Beto's penis with gas and light it on fire. In a lengthy, unflinching shot, we see it burn to a crisp.
That ends up being just the tip of the iceberg for Heli, which delves into the psychological damage that goes with witnessing such an act. There's little connective tissue to what Heli experiences before and after his capture, and that's the film's greatest fault. When you drop that bomb halfway through a movie, it's hard to build on. Unlike 2012's Miss Bala, another examination of the cartel culture in Mexico that saw trauma birth compliance, Escalante theorizes that the same experience cultivates violence. So, yes, things don't slow down post-manhood burning.
Having a singular scene define a movie has its pros and cons. For Heli, it could be the buzzworthy talking point that makes it a success across the globe.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.