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.

Near Dark (1987): Cowboys and Vampires

Cover of "Near Dark (1987)"
Cover of Near Dark (1987)

I re-watched this 1980’s film today and marvelled at how beautiful it looked. Which is just as well as the pace of the film is almost snail-like.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (who also co-wrote the film with Eric Red) the future Mrs James Cameron (now ex-Mrs Cameron) does a pretty good job at setting the scene for this slow moving and slow paced ‘genre-bender’ and it is easy to see why it has built up such a huge cult following.

At the time of it’s release, it was following a current 80’s trend of vampire movies that were sweeping the box office. Fright Night (vampire comedy), The Lost Boys (teen vampire action) and The Hunger (vampire noir) had all done very well with the general public. A lot of other vampire films were released in the 80’s but only the vampire western Near Dark falls into the same calibre of the previous three films mentioned.

Unfortunately when the film initially opened it’s box office receipts were poor and the film did not even earn it’s budget back. The film has gone on to become a cult favourite (I know that I’ve loved the film for years) and was going to be remade until Twilight opened in theatres and now is on indefinite hold. Although why the emergence of Twilight could have any sort of impact on this film is completely beyond me.

Starring relative newcomers Adrian Pasdar, and Jenny Wright the rest of the cast was made up of Hollywood workhorses of a wide variety and talent. Lance Henriksen, Bill PaxtonJenette Goldstein and Tim Thomerson as Adrian Pasdar’s character’s Dad. Worthy of note was the decision to cast the young Joshua John Miller as the pudgy, creepy pre-pubescent vampire Homer. Miller’s portrayal of the chain smoking childish vampire who evoked a feeling of being a paedophilia  ‘wanna-be’ was clearly the most disturbing of the vampire clan in the film.

I felt at the time, and still do, that the vampires in the film headed by Henriksen and Goldstein were the vampire equivalent of the small time gangsters Bonnie and Clyde Barrows who terrorized small backwoods towns, banks and gas stations of the rural mid-west. You got the feeling that this group of killers had slid just under the radar through most of the places they moved through in their quest for blood and games.

The only problem with the film were the two romantic leads. Pasdar and Wright are just too bland as the country kids who fall in love, one a vampire, the other a cowboy. Personality did not seem to exist in either of them. Of course to be fair, when you have actors of the ilk of Henriksen, Paxton, Goldstein and Thomerson to share the screen with, unless you are very special, you’re going to  be blown off the screen. Which is precisely what happened in this film.

Ya wanna be in my gang?

The plot is pretty straight forward, Caleb Colton (Pasdar) goes into town and meets Mae (Wright). Instantly smitten he spends the night with her and she bites him. In this world a vampires bite is instantly viral and starts turning the recipient into one of the undead. As Caleb flees the rising sun (which does not make you twinkle, but instead causes you to catch fire and explode if you don’t get out of it quick enough) Mae’s vampire clan snatch Caleb up and they head for shelter.

Most of the film is then split up into Papa Colton trying to find Caleb, Caleb learning about how crazy and unforgiving this vampire clan is, and Caleb’s attempts to flee the group.

Despite its slow pacing, the film is stunning to look at and brilliant in its depiction of the vampires as a sort of social deviants. You also get the feeling   that they were the  same when they were alive.  The  character information is given out in ‘dribs and drabs’ and it adds to the feel of the story. We learn that Jesse Hooker (Henriksen) has been around since the American Civil War at least and that Paxton is his protégée. We learn how Diamondback (Goldstein) was found while changing a flat tire.

Nothing is ever revealed about Homer’s turning and this helps build the natural revulsion of his character.

I  give big points to the writers for coming up with a unique way to ‘cure’ the infected people in the film. It is certainly one that I’ve never seen before or since, come to think of it.  It is a real shame that this film didn’t do better on release and that it’s taken so long for it to reach cult status. I am relieved to hear that they will not be doing a remake as it sounds, by the press release at any rate, that it was going to have a lot in common with Twilight.

I can’t think of a more disturbing idea. Vampires who had bucket loads of personality (mostly bad) suddenly turned into brooding emo type characters who don’t burn in the sun, but twinkle in it. Whoever in the world thought that was a good idea?

I’m so full of angst!