Cartel Land: Meth, Tears and Vigilantes (Review)

It is oddly fitting that the documentary Cartel Land, directed and filmed by Matthew Heineman, should be making waves at the same time that the film Sicario has also been getting rave reviews from critics.

Poster for Michael Heineman's Cartel Land

It is oddly fitting that  the documentary Cartel Land, directed and filmed by Matthew Heineman, should be making waves at the same time that the film Sicario has also been getting rave reviews from critics. While the documentary deals with meth and vigilantes on both sides of the border and deals with the reality of cartels, both productions have one thing in common; the tears of the innocent.

Heineman, in his fourth outing as documentary director, is the cinematographer who follows the vigilantes in Mexico and the paramilitary  group through Arizona’s Altar Valley as they seek to stop drugs coming into the country.  Each group may fly similar flags of intent, but the Arizona Border Recon, headed up by Tim “Nailer” Foley (who is an American veteran) is, in reality, a thinly disguised immigration control group with little interest in stopping cartel smuggling and a intent interest in keeping  illegal aliens from taking jobs.

The documentary follows Nailer’s group somewhat, but focusses on things below the border fence. Dr. Jose Mireles, aka El Doctor,  is the charismatic, well spoken and humble leader of Autodefensas . He  heads the  armed group of vigilantes who pass out T-shirts and recruit locals from towns overrun by the cartels.

A battle between the vigilantes, the government (paid for by the local cartels) and the cartels themselves erupts. With names like Knights Templar, the drug gangs control with a mixture of fear, death, torture, bribery and intimidation.  Mireles speaks of the origins of the Templar group and rather tellingly, explains that they too began as opposition to an existing cartel, becoming corrupt as they expanded.

Heineman gets up close and personal with the main players in Autodefensas. El Doctor and his second in command “Papa Smurf” grow the organization;  increasing membership, wresting towns from the cartel and spreading the word that the bad guys can be beaten.  After what appears to be an attempt on Mireles’s life, Papa Smurf is  temporarily put in charge and the nature and structure of the vigilante group changes.

Templars infiltrate the group and complaints from villagers come rolling in.  Eventually, the ideology of the organization changes as does the leadership.

South of the border, the story feels all too familiar, power and corruption do indeed, as Heineman shows, go hand in hand. North of the border, immigrants are stopped and turned over to the authorities but no drugs are confiscated, proof that the activities of the paramilitary group are not as advertised.

Kathryn Bigelow (Oscar winning former spouse of James Cameron and director of Hurt Locker) is the executive producer of  this gritty, intimate and compelling look at vigilante justice and their goals both sides of the border.  While Cartel Land  lacks Hollywood stars and gory special effects, it does manage to disturb and ensnare the viewer.

The film itself is not just about the vigilantes who want to eliminate the cartels, it also features a close look at just why people work for the Knights Templar, or their equivalent.  The meth cooks, who are met at the start of the documentary and revisited later in the film, explain that they know laws and lives are broken by what they do.

But…

They also point out that someone will always do what they are presently doing.  It will never stop, a message also conveyed in the Denis Villeneuve film Sicario.  Bigelow and Heineman have opted to leave the “near-reality” of Breaking Badand other fictionalized visions of the drug trade,  behind and show the warts and underbelly of the drug trade and the citizens who  take the law into their own hands to stop it.

Granted, the vast majority of the tale takes place in Michoacán, Mexico; a whole world away from the US but the reach of the film surpasses this geological location.  This look at cartels and the citizen groups who “fight” them has not been commercialized in the least.  The film is a fly in the wall vision of a struggle that will never be stop and how even the “good guys”  can become seduced by power and the fight.

There are things that “clang” within the documentary. The repeated story of babies being killed by holding their feet and smashing their heads against rocks immediately rings a false note. This grisly and disturbing act has been attributed to “baddies” since the First World War, initially said of Russian soldiers and used again in WWII for the Nazis.

Some villagers sport idiotic grins during the “riot” scenes and during the funeral of a murdered family, young attractive girls in the background mug for the camera.

These jarring moments, which do intrude, do not take away from the power of the documentary, but do mar it.  Perhaps a tighter camera edit or judicious reframing could have fixed this, but overall the documentary impresses with its intimate vision of good becoming sour as it fights the villains and a government who want control.

Cartel Land has rocked the film festival world and has pulled  in seven awards and a number of nominations.  Watching the documentary, it is immediately apparent why it evokes so much excitement.  Heineman gives us a vision that upsets and contains a few twists and turns along the way. Betrayal, human weakness and loss of focus are combined with the human factor and hidden agendas that weaken the motivations of the main players.

This documentary is a must see.  Michael Heineman and Kathryn Bigelow have teamed up to produce a compelling and personal look at drugs, cartels and the real people who want change.  5 out of 5 stars.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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