El Infierno (2010, aka El Narco, aka Hell) is in equal parts one of the best and also most disturbing films on Netflix Instant. To be clear, it’s not the cinematic violence that’s so disturbing—although the brutality inflicted on screen is just as vicious as that of your average Tarantino flick (and many heads do roll, quite literally). What’s deeply unsettling about this film is the harsh realities it’s steeped in, and how gruesome they are when confronted.
Confrontation, as a matter of fact, is exactly what director Luis Estrada employs—only he does it in a way that’s as morbidly ironic as the “narcocorridos” (celebratory druglord ballads) that revel in the bloodlust of the film’s villainous protagonists.
But before we dive in to the not-so-subliminal politics of one of the greatest and most important Mexican movies ever made, let’s start with the premise.
Benny García (Damián Alcázar) returns home to Mexico after 20 years of working stateside. An early sequence—set comically to the tune of a ballad about Mexican-American pride—shows Benny deported and robbed blind by cops and criminals as he makes his way back to his mother’s house, where he set out from two decades ago. He greets his mother as a ragged man with nothing to show for himself, save his boyish smile.
Benny soon begins facing some hard truths. His hometown (the fictional San Miguel Arcángel) has become a haven of crime and murder, and his brother was killed as a byproduct of the drug violence that’s devastated the area. He views all this with the wide eyes of a man who seems to be setting foot in a foreign country.
While Benny makes a go at keeping on the straight and narrow by working at his godfather’s auto repair shop, it proves just as futile as everything else he’s done in his forgettable existence. Then he takes up with the drop-dead gorgeous, prostitute ex-lover of his brother. To provide any sort of life for her and her son (Benny’s nephew), it becomes clear that a grease monkey’s paycheck simply doesn’t cut the mustard.
That’s where one of El Infierno‘s best characters comes into play. Benny runs into a boyhood friend who’s become a mafioso known as “Cochiloco.” Cochi is played by the great Mexican character actor Joaquín Cosio (who you can also see on Netflix Instant in A Night in Old Mexico and Saving Private Perez—both of which are campy genre fun, but neither of which I can highly recommend).
With the aid of Cochi, Benny breaks bad and begins working as a cartel enforcer. Speaking of “breaking bad,” if you’re at all familiar with narcocorridos, it’s most likely through Vince Gilligan’s show:
Before we continue, I can’t help mentioning some interesting parallels between this movie and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film which ranks firmly in my all-time top ten.
In the one movie where Peckinpah was given absolute creative control before he went batshit on tequila, the great Warren Oates plays a down-on-his-luck guy named Bennie. Bennie is in love with a beautiful Mexican prostitute. Bennie loves tequila blanco. Benny is searching for the head of a man named Garcia.
In El Infierno, a man named Benny Garcia drinks a lot of tequila blanco and is in love with a beautiful Mexican prostitute. His cartel boss, who looks and behaves like El Jefe in Alfredo Garcia, demands that heads be brought to him. And to avoid spoilers, the fate of Benny and Bennie play out in almost exactly the same fashion. Shit, Damián Alcázar and Warren Oates even look alike with their white suits, tinted shades and Western mustaches.
The story of El Infierno is epic, to say the least. It’s a grand-scale tragicomedy that comes off both as a fiendishly entertaining gangster movie and an indictment of the cyclical, epidemic violence that is currently devouring much of Mexico.
Perhaps this is where I should address why I find it hard to write about this film. Obviously, this here blog is about all the violent and twisted entertainment that us crime/thriller/horror adherents adore. El Infierno, conversely, is a masterfully horrific, violent thriller that might as well be a mirror held to the type of psyche that appreciates such forms of entertainment. Furthermore—and only if one bothers to think about it—the film shows how such an appreciation can actually perpetuate unspeakable evils in that place out there called “real life.”
Don’t get me wrong—this movie isn’t going to make me stop writing about violent movies or appreciating them. But I would be doing a disservice to a great piece of filmmaking if I simply said, “You have to see this! It’s the best cartel movie since Scarface!”
Which leads to another another admission: I’m not a fan of Scarface. And not because it’s a piece of ’80s schlock with a shallow script and far too many canned performances. The issue I have is a moral one (yes, El Infierno has driven me to address that taboo subject).
Essentially, Scarface took something a little too bad and made it look a little too good. Case in point: Just ask any shitty mainstream rapper who touts gun violence, female subjection and murder what their favorite film is. The ubiquitous answer is, of course, Scarface.
Brian De Palma’s 1983 cult classic has unfortunately transcended what crime-film lovers like myself deem a guilty pleasure. It’s become a badge of honor, a gang tattoo—the theme song to a generation of violence, with a message that killing human beings will get you ahead in this world. A message that, without a doubt, has inspired many human beings to kill other human beings.
I’m not trying to get all Tipper Gore on your ass and say that kids are gonna go kill other kids if they listen to The Slim Shady LP. But I am of the opinion that when impressed upon weak minds, glorified depictions of cinematic violence have the distinct possibility of influencing acts of similar violence in the real world. James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, would have undoubtedly done some awful shit if he hadn’t seen the Dark Knight movies. Still, he probably wouldn’t have killed 12 people specifically at a Dark Knight movie while dressed like the Joker if he hadn’t been influenced by those movies.
And the argument that Scarface is a “cautionary tale” is just ridiculous. Before he died, Tony Montana got rich and powerful as hell, fucked Michelle Pfeiffer and essentially got everything there is to get out of the material world. If you have nothing, a mere glimpse of that is probably worth a pine box to a lot of people.
That’s not to say that I’m judging anyone for buying into the narco lifestyle. El Infierno makes it abundantly clear that in a broken system, the choices for the impoverished are either a long, fruitless life of piety or a life of flashy crime. When Benny asks Cochi if he’s worried he’ll go to hell for his sins, Cochi responds, “Hell, my ass. Hell is right here.” And the landscape of El Infierno is hell, for both citizens and violent narcos alike.
The film’s method of portraying this violence while also ridiculing the viewer for watching it can be most aptly summarized through its use of narcocorridos. These are, after all, hero anthems about people who kill both gangsters and innocents. And those innocents who’re being gunned down every day in places like Juárez? They’re very much the same audience who’ve made narcocorridos the most popular style of music in Mexico over the past several years.
In other words, this violence exists in the mainstream because we as consumers demand it. Nevermind that it only further fuels the fire of a culture of murder and destruction.
Does this all sound really fucking bleak and as if places like Juárez are eternally doomed because its victims support its killers? Good, that’s what Luis Estrada is going for. As the director said in an interview with the LA Times, “Mexicans have become the victims and the executioners, all at the same time.” (It should be noted that Hollywood and American consumers are equally to blame.)
El Infierno is as entertaining and hilarious of a gangster flick as I can think of in recent years. Underlying all that, however, is a deeply ingrained sociopolitical message that points a finger at those of us who tacitly support this violence by buying into the cinematic allure of it. “No one can see this picture as just entertainment,” Estrada told the Times. “There is no redeemable person in the film. There is no hero, no vision of hope. All the characters are bad or worse.”
Unfortunately, this message will no doubt be ignored by many who see the life of a narco as a brief but worthwhile avenue to a level of power and respect that they could never accomplish as an ordinary citizen. So if you want a movie like Scarface and don’t need all this high-horse morality shit from me, I promise you’ll still love El Infierno. (However, it has subtitles, which you probably don’t fuck with if Scarface is your favorite movie.)
In all, El Infierno is a brilliant film in which Estrada accomplishes the unique feat of offering a desperate plea to the masses in the same breath that he appeases their bloodlust. It’s left to the audience which of these messages they’d like to take home.
NOTES: If you want a view into the subculture of narcocorridos and the destructive role of narco culture in Mexican society, check out the excellent documentary Narco Cultura (also available on Netflix Instant).