Heroic - David Zonana
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Zachary Goldkind Featured Film

Heroic — David Zonana [Sundance ’23 Review]

February 1, 2023

The tenets of toxic masculinity are tried and true, displayed in manifold methods of patriarchal oppression, and specifically in conjunction with a process of internalized suppression. Any and all signifiers on this subject have been wrung quite profusely over the last handful of years, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that one of two — or both — things are occurring. The first: filmmakers are not watching other films, for they would then be confronted with their own trite observations and might consequently be persuaded to either scrutinize their conceptions further or simply move on. The second: filmmakers do not have the dialectical faculties to approach moralism, casting their platitudes into archetypes and straw-manning their conceits. It’s not easy to parse which filmmakers are guilty of which dereliction, but one of these options must certainly be, at least, an excuse for the overabundance of work parroting one another. David Zonana’s sophomore feature, Heroic, fits cleanly and unceremoniously into this wealth of redundancy.

Luis, a new recruit into the Mexican army, faces the power-hungry ogling of his superiors, who will steadily disintegrate his self-control and ethical core and transmogrify this seemingly innocent boy into a militant abuser. You’ve seen this film before. You know how it operates and where it’s going. Zonana has appropriated arthouse austerity into his compositional survey of this space wherein such violence seethes, but the director fails to cohere the institutional and the individual beyond expository pontification. The place wherein our drama unfurls is merely, in practice, a context, lacking the specificity or curiosity that proves integral to unifying the film’s thesis. Kubrick is the obvious reference here, but he certainly understood the ways these training camps transformed from the perspective of those writhing under its abuse. With Kubrick, the camp becomes a graveyard, a suffocating crib whose halls are walked by the ghosts of those who once trained here, as this is where their humanity came to be excised.

This camp in Heroic, however, is an anonymous ground, studded by Aztec ornamentation and architectural influence atop which neither history nor presence can be extrapolated. It could be argued that this estrangement of a space, so embellished with these cultural signifiers — a suggestion of aesthetic appropriation and erasure — offers no utilized motif that is brought into the fold of Luis’ development. Perhaps, if we were to follow this postulation to its logical end, the distance that grows between Luis and his/our recognition of these emblems — alongside the fact that he, on two separate occasions, usurps his indigenous language by insisting on speaking Spanish — would be conceivably indicative of the alienation wrought by this churning of positionality and co-optation of patriarchal barbarism. But this is merely a process witnessed via broad machinations, underlined as to vaguely insinuate a thematic substratum to this narrative. The film does not do the legwork to manifest this throughline.

Static shots laboriously fill the runtime, reaffirming the dour sphere Luis only ever exists in from the opening. Stagnant is this film’s visual literacy, its capacity to express stifled through a deficient imagination. It’s frankly all a bunch of drudgery, a tired reiteration of autofiction that enforces the conspicuous. When will this obsession with masculinity and its volatility evince introspective profundity? Being a man and its institutionalization deserves a more thorough survey than these microwaved leftovers. Loose homoeroticism can’t cover for the absence of authorial incision, and there must be a more intriguing insight to induce than what we receive via the painfully transparent provocation of a dog’s murder egged on by peer pressure. Surely we have not sunk to such dismal lows as spectators to be engrossed by the vacant, the banal, and the woefully derivative.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.