The military drama Heroic overcomes cliché to capture structural horror.
A significant string of recently released movies centralize crises of faith. The lead suffers abuse, boiling until they burst. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, a subconscious metaphor for how authoritarianism and the crushing realities of oppressive institutional forces are increasing the temperature and pressure of the citizenry that will inevitably lead to a rupture. In 2022 there was God’s Country, The Beasts, and Women Talking. Now at Sundance, we have Heroic, a Mexican drama unfolding inside a military school. Director David Zonana’s film may resemble several movies that use this same arc. However, it distinguishes itself with careful direction and surreal depictions of how the mind processes abuse and vengeance.
Zonana films hazing rituals and routine drills with an eye for visual geometry that distinguishes power levels. Young recruits, referred to as “potros” (colts), always move on the sides of the frame or undistinguished as square or triangular squadrons when conducting gun rituals. Officers remain centered, maintaining authority with both direct physical presence and as a distant watchful eye.
Heroic’s central character Luis Nuñez Rosales (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal), often referred to as Nuñez, lingers off to the sides of the action. Many times he disappears amongst his fellow recruits. That ends when his superior, Sergeant Eugenio Sierra (Fernando Cuautle), taps Nuñez as his personal lackey. The young soldier’s told several times that the military is his escape from a difficult life as a civilian – he is at least part-indigenous Nahua with a sickly mother to support.
Heroic makes clear how the military complex takes advantage of the underprivileged. The only way out of being crushed involves acquiring and inevitably abusing power. Like Saul Auslander in Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015) or Jamie in Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders (2011), Nuñez’s silent and dutiful nature gives him an avenue to special treatment. Of course, excelling in that role soon makes him complicit in the brutal actions of Sierra and the other officers.
When they torture and disappear a rebellious recruit in the middle of the night, Nuñez begins to break. It’s here where Heroic’s intensity splits into two threads. The first reflects the immediate threats and intimidation of reality. The second reveals the vengeance-filled fantasies that swirl in Nuñez’s mind. Initially, tracking shots of the back of his head with an intense, eerie synth appear as distinctive from the day-to-day sequences. Before long, though, the two start to blend.
[Director David] Zonana shields the audience from the same desensitization by keeping violence in the peripheries.
Zonana purposefully omits overt displays of on-camera violence throughout most of Heroic, save for a very upsetting killing of a dog. Instead, violence is implied, in words, distant screams, passive dialogue, and rumors. Meanwhile, the officers watch what seem to be torture videos on their phones. The juxtaposition is clear. Zonana shields the audience from the same desensitization by keeping violence in the peripheries. Yet, the knowledge of it is itself enough to stir anger and prove injustice.
If there’s a drawback of the film is that Heroic’s compiling of abuses often stumble into cliché. All the beats of Midnight Express and the first hour of Full Metal Jacket–minus the humor–get repeated here. While the violence is off-screen, its implications are no less heavy-handed. The final shot, a sequence left temporally ambiguous, is a bit of an eye-roll. While the awkward and contrived ending worked better in a movie like Fandry, it doesn’t negate the power of the film that comes before it.