Open your eyes so you don’t miss the show. —narco gang torturer and murderer
A brutally disturbing look at the effect of the narco drug trafficking war in Mexico, a follow up to Gerardo Naranjo’s acclaimed Miss Bala (2011), both of which show how innocent people are pulled into the deadly affairs of Mexican drug cartels, which have killed as many as 60,000 people since the military declared a Mexican drug war in 2006, while another 20,000 are still unaccounted for, where cartels control 90% of the cocaine entering the United States, which amounts to a $30 billion dollar industry. Both Mexican and the U.S. media have made claims that the Sinaloa Cartel, considered the biggest criminal organization in the world, and the leading drug trafficker, has infiltrated the Mexican federal government and military, and colluded with it to destroy and take over other cartels. Much like the Russian film The Major (Mayor) (2013), both show the devastating effects of police corruption, where there’s reason to believe, according to Los Señores del Narco (Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers), a recent book by Anabel Hernández and Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah, that Mexico’s war on drugs is a big lie, as they don’t believe the government is fighting the cartels, linking the violence of the cartels to the leadership of the Mexican state, which in the eyes of the public are indistinguishable. According to Saviano’s forward to the book, “Narcoland shows how contemporary capitalism is in no position to renounce the mafia. Because it is not the mafia that has transformed itself into a modern capitalist enterprise, it is capitalism that has transformed itself into a mafia. The rules of drug trafficking that Anabel Hernández describes are also the rules of capitalism.” Initially driven by personal outrage, the father of Ms. Hernández was kidnapped in 2000, where the Mexico City police would only investigate if they were paid, which the family refused to do, where her father was subsequently found murdered. When Ms. Hernández began writing about the violence of the drug cartels, she has received boxes of dead animals left at her doorstep, where Mexico is the fourth most deadly country for reporters, topped only by Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan.
Amat Escalante worked as an assistant director to Carlos Reygadas in BATTLE OF HEAVEN (2005), becoming close friends afterwards, where Reygadas is listed as a producer of several Escalante films, including this one which won the Best Director prize at Cannes, following Reygadas who won the exact same award the year before with 2012 Top Ten List #2 Post Tenebras Lux (2012). A picture of grim hopelessness, the film is set in the Guanajuato region of central Mexico, one of the more lawless, crime-ridden regions, seen as an arid desert of unending emptiness, where Escalante captures the squalidness of Mexico’s drug war in the opening scene, an extended sequence that shows two bound and gagged men laying face down in the back of a pickup truck, with a mud-covered boot stepping on a man’s bloodied face with tape covering his mouth. They stop at a bridge with a pedestrian crossing over the highway, quickly hauling a man’s body up the stairs where he is strung up and left for dead, hung by his neck with his hands tied behind his back in a public execution, a picture of mafia retribution, reminiscent of Mussolini and other Fascists executed at the end of the war, a humiliating act of revenge meant to discourage other Fascists from continuing the fight. The film then backtracks to events leading up to the execution, where Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young factory worker at a nearby auto plant living with his father, both working different shifts, also his 12-year old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), his wife Sabina (Linda González) and their baby. A portrait of bleak lives, trouble starts when Estela develops a crush on the first boy she meets, the much older Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a 17-year old special forces cadet, seen going through the grueling paces of intensive training, stealing two packets of cocaine intended for burning, thinking perhaps he could buy Estela’s hand in marriage or elope with the money earned by selling the confiscated drugs. When Heli finds the packets hidden on the roof inside a water tank, he tries to do the right thing and dumps the drugs in an unused well.
Government special forces barge in on them, breaking the door down and shooting his father, kidnapping both Heli and Estela, with a brutalized Beto already in the back of the van, where in short order it appears they are handed over to a narco gang, while Estela remains in the hands of corrupt government forces that likely sell her into prostitution, as she simply disappears. Heli and Beto are sadistically tortured in front of younger kids who are more interested in playing video games. Each is given a chance to take a whack at them, as Beto is beaten into losing consciousness, only to be revived for even worse, where the savage cruelty is shown with an alarmingly dispassionate casualness, as if the perpetrators are already numbed to their own nihilism. This leads back to the opening scene at the bridge, where Heli stumbles home in a kind of dazed confusion afterwards, where the film does explore the psychic cost of violence in great detail. The pain of his homecoming is further aggravated by a pair of unsympathetic cops who’d rather grill him with endless questions than offer him treatment for his medical injuries. The cinematography by Lorenzo Hagerman is reminiscent of early Kiarostami, where a lone car dots the desolate landscape with a painterly beauty, or Sabina returns home with groceries in hand only to see a stream of blood on the floor and her family missing, collapsing in the doorway, where the camera tenderly pulls back, as if offering her space for her grief. This is quite a contrast to the matter-of-fact cruelty that is part of the everyday horrors of the region, where even the investigating police are useless, requesting sexual favors from Heli in return for cooperation in finding his sister, who eventually wanders home on her own accord, pregnant and severely traumatized. The portrait is one of a system thoroughly broken at the highest levels, where corruption is so entrenched systematically that it reaches down to the lowest levels of society, leaving its citizens thoroughly disgusted by the extensive reach of the violence, leaving them demoralized by such dim prospects of a better future, where day in and day out, all that’s left is a collective, uncontainable trauma.