A punishing look at extreme military indoctrination, David Zonana’s second feature, Heroic, portrays the relentless system of abuse, torture and violence that new army recruits go through while attending Mexico’s own version of West Point, which is ironically called the Heroic Military College.
Despite such a name, there are hardly any heroics on display in this cruel story of oppressed youth, and barely any developed characters. There are just the abused and the abusers, who face off in a series of increasingly unsettling confrontations that play out like the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket extended into a full movie. It’s a grim affair indeed, and one that feels close to the work of fellow Mexican director Michel Franco (New Order), credited here as producer. Whether or not it will stir up substantial interest after Sundance is another story.
The Bottom Line
Brutal and a bit bland.
Shot in starkly elegant widescreen by Carolina Costa (The Chosen Ones), and set in a massive compound that looks like an Aztec temple remodeled by an architect of postwar Brutalism, the film follows the travails of a young cadet named Luis (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal). Luis signs up for the army so that his sick mother can get free healthcare, but soon finds himself in a downward spiral of violence and degradation at the hands of his overseers, especially the sadistic Sergeant Sierra (Fernando Cuautle).
From one sequence to another, we watch Luis and his fellow trainees get insulted, punished, smacked around and much, much worse as they’re shaped from boys into men by their higher-ups, who are hardly older than they are yet seem to wield unlimited power. Zonana makes it clear from the get-go that there are CCTV cameras in the barracks, so the worst cases of abuse happen when the lights are out. We therefore hear more than we see sometimes, although we get to see quite a lot as well.
The hazing scenes, of which there are many, are intercut with scenes of the recruits marching in regal formation to patriotic songs, or else listening to monotone PowerPoint lectures about how Mexican soldiers “must uphold the rights of civil society.” Do you sense the utter hypocrisy here?
Like Franco, Zonana portrays a dog-eat-dog world made up of strict social hierarchies and laced with outbursts of ruthless violence, which the soldiers commit during training and on occasional excursions outside the compound, where Sierra obliges Luis to partake in armed home invasions. The relationship between sergeant and private grows more twisted as Luis becomes both teacher’s pet and punching bag, with hints of homoeroticism and self-loathing that are never fully explored.
There are no real surprises in Heroic, which sets its course to hell in the opening scene and follows a straight path there for the next 90 minutes. We learn little about Luis beyond the fact that his dad, who abandoned the family, was a soldier as well, or that his mother’s cancer is the only reason he entered the academy.
Luis tries to resist the constant oppression he faces, speaking out to a general or attempting to quit the army, but it’s all in vain. The only positive encounter he has is with a stray dog he befriends one day in the forest, but when Sierra and his pals get wind of this, well, you can see where things are headed.
The film is obviously meant to be a reflection on the rampant violence currently plaguing Mexico, and it’s a dreary reflection indeed: When they’re not beating the crap out of the other conscripts, Sierra and co. get kicks out of watching snuff videos of rapes, shootings and beheadings on their telephones, as if cruelty and savagery had become a natural rite of passage for all young men like them.
Were the older cadets always like this or are they, too, products of the same system of indoctrination that Luis is now going through, in a country racked by corruption and murder? Zonana never makes them feel human enough for us to care, but perhaps that’s his point: In a place where the choice is to kill or be killed, to be either torturer or victim, such signs of humanity are rare indeed.