Heroic Review: A Visually Striking Drama Examining The Horrors Of Military School [Sundance]

Art has proven time and time again that war is hell. In many cases, it's dehumanizing and vicious, running through victims as if their lives meant nothing. However, one can say the same thing about the training held before a war is officially declared — if a prospective soldier has been broken down well before a real conflict arises, they could prove to be a more effective fighter. At least, that's the idea.

However, as director David Zonana posits in his film "Heroic," that cruelty will only make a soldier more numb, detached, and sadistic. Such is the case with Luis (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal), a young Nahua man who enlists in the Heroic Military College to follow in his father's footsteps. While expecting the usual harshness of the military in his training, he didn't expect his superiors to treat himself and his fellow cadets with such disdain. The worst of these superiors is Sergeant Sierra (Fernando Cuautle), who teaches Luis that to be a great soldier, he must let go of everything he deems right.

"Heroic" is a haunting film that begs the question, what good do these cruel and unusual experiences serve? It deconstructs the idea that military colleges are meant to shape future soldiers into their best selves – instead, as depicted through Luis, they can become shells of the people they once were, and the film delivers its terrifying message in spades.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

The most striking thing about "Heroic" is the way it is shot. Most of its scenes are filmed statically and distant as if the camera is a passive bystander to what is happening in front of it. There are also no cuts in-between scenes – even when characters are moving from one area of the set to another, the camera follows and sticks with them even after they've reached their destination. This isn't even talking about how in wide shots, the camera is positioned to make the actors look small and insignificant in the giant outdoor school.

The intensity of the film's cinematography is the work of Carolina Costa, and it would not have worked nearly as much as it did without her. The cinematography strikes that perfect balance between invasive and distant, knowing but restrained, which perfectly fits the film's themes. It serves as a visual representation that every superior at the Heroic Military College knows their sins but chooses to fuel them rather than stop them. Couple that with Zonana's tight direction and the perpetually-murky college surroundings, and you've got a setting that, while never actually changing throughout the film, only gets more distressing as time wears on.

Do you know how lucky you are?

Unlike in many similar movies about the horrors of war, Carbajal gives a quiet and stoic performance that works in the film's favor. He rarely outwardly breaks like his fellow students, or Colts, do, with the few moments he does having him silently inflicting his turmoil on those he loves. With the way Luis talks about his father, one has to wonder if he was already somewhat broken into the Heroic College mindset before he was even accepted. There is a similar, albeit more frightening casual aura surrounding Cuautle's performance as Sierra, although a recurring subplot involving his repressed intentions doesn't exactly work the way it was intended.

"Heroic" is likely a movie that won't work for everyone, as a few intentionally horrifying moments of casual brutality will have viewers squirming. However, by utilizing the camera as an intensely rigid weapon, the film drives home its intentions in a way that's neither overbearing nor vague. It is a powerful example of the power of visual storytelling, of allowing the technical aspects of movies to tell a painful story in a way mere words cannot. Without that strong sense of direction by Zonana and the incredible work of Costa, it's hard to say whether "Heroic" would have been nearly as effective or heart-wrenching as it is. The film truly could have only been made by them.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10