Directed by: Matthew Heineman.
Over the years, there have been a number of narrative films about the War on Drugs, centered on the Mexican cartels, who can be brutally violent, and those few people who fight against them – who in doing so take their lives in their own hands. Films like Traffic (2000), Savages (2012) and Sicario (2015) basically make the whole situation seem rather hopeless. Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land is a documentary – although it almost plays like a narrative feature – and the portrait it offers is, if anything, even bleaker than those narrative films. After spending a few minutes at the beginning of the film with a group of Mexican meth cookers, he spends most of the film in the company of two vigilante groups – one that operates in Mexico, the other in America who try and combat the violence of the Cartels. Heineman doesn’t really provide the film with a point-of-view, he never judges the people he is following – he leaves that to the audience. Watching the film though it’s hard not to get dispirited – on the Mexican side of the border, the ever present threat of the Cartels is real – lots of people are brutally murdered by them, often for little reason, and the government acts as if it powerless to stop them. The vigilante group that forms, therefore, seems necessary – but through the course of the film we see how even that becomes corrupted. On the American side, it’s hard not to see the vigilante group as a bunch of racist, paranoid men playing dress up – who have convinced themselves that they are doing something worthwhile, when really they’re doing nothing at all. The sad part is, of course, that no one else is doing any better.
After the opening moments spent with those meth cooks, the film switches gears and focuses on the weathered face of Tim Foley, who has started the group in Arizona, dedicated to patrolling the border on the lookout for the Cartels. The group initially started out looking for people trying to illegally enter the country – but they have broadened their mission. Foley tries his best to make it clear that his group isn’t racist – or at least, he isn’t, even though he admits he is desperate for manpower, so he sometimes has to take people in whose views he disagrees with (Heineman skillfully immediately cuts to a guy saying the exact type of racist thing Foley doesn’t want his group associated with). Still, for all the talk we will eventually see this group do – for all the shots Heineman gets of them using night vision, stalking the desert with automatic weapons, there is precious little evidence that they actually accomplish anything. They chase the odd Cartel scout – but things are not overly dramatic in the desert of Arizona.
That isn’t the case in Mexico – where Heineman follows “El Doctor” – real name Jose Mireles - as he goes head to head with the Knights Templar cartel. If Foley thinks what he is seeing is bad, he doesn’t know the half of it. Heineman begins this part of the story with a woman talking directly to the camera about how 13 members of her family – including babies – were killed by the Cartel to send a message to their boss. There are brutal photographs of decapitated heads, and all sorts of other atrocities. If Foley thinks the American government isn’t doing anything, than Mireles is right when he thinks the Mexican government isn’t doing anything either. He forms the Autodefensas group, and goes from town-to-town to wipe out the Cartel – by any means necessary. And he gets results. But it doesn’t take long for the idealism of the group to slip – for the audience to see (or hear) things that the Autodefensas is doing that crosses the line. The government tries to bring them under control – but they are already compromised from within, as certain people are already aligned with the cartels. Mireles himself, who starts as a hero, becomes something much more complicated as the film progresses – and Heineman simply sits back and lets the audience process it all, and be complicit in Mireles action.
Heineman and his fellow cinematography put themselves in danger when shooting the movie. They are there with the Autodefensas during gunfights, and aren’t afraid of any consequences. They are essentially war photographers in the middle of a bloody, all-out war, and they do not flinch. This makes the film visceral and exciting – and more than a little scary at the same time.
Like all the narrative films mentioned at the top of the review, Cartel Land doesn’t really offer anything close to solutions to the problems it addresses. Essentially, all it really does is make you want to throw your hands in the air and give up. At this point, nothing else has really been able to curtail the cartels after all. – and I’m not sure we want the people we see in this movie to keep on trying.