At the start of this artfully black Mexican drama, the mystery would seem to be why it’s taken a year to come out after winning Amat Escalante Best Director at last year’s Cannes Festival. By the end, the mystery is why Escalante won Best Director at last year’s Cannes Festival. My guess is the judges only caught the film’s terrific, novel first act – a lower-middle-class family portrait involving the young breadwinner Heli and his hasty 12-year-old sister Estrela. Here, a surprise waits round every corner – Heli obliged to take part in undignified P.E. at the car factory where he works, Estela’s idiot soldier boyfriend Beto using her as an impromptu barbell.
All goes awry after Beto’s theft of a batch of cocaine. The infernal kicks in fast. Bad news for Heli, and for us. Soon, the stylistic flourishes don’t just seem self-conscious but cribbed, karaoke shades of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Harmony Korine. To keep the voyeurs interested, Escalante goes splashy with the torture, lurching into It’s Grim Down South guignol. Heli rightly argues that in a country less distressed than Mexico this could have all been avoided – but then how would Escalante get to kill the puppy?