The drug doc 'Cartel Land' is more than just handsome
A Kathryn Bigelow-produced doc about militiamen on both sides of the border looks a beaut, but it's really a quietly horrified portrait of chaos.
Director: Matthew Heineman
3 (out of 5) Globes
The militiaman survey “Cartel Land” won both director and cinematography awards at this year’s Sundance, and far as docs go it is atypically handsome. At this point cameras are state of the art enough to offer both hi-def visuals and hyper-mobility, qualities director Matthew Heineman takes for granted as he scampers through real-shoot-outs that look like outtakes from a movie by Kathryn Bigelow — as it happens, one of the producers. (All that’s missing are heavy metal licks.) But it’s not really an immediate, you-are-there experience. It’s a patient, detached but cryptically horrified study of a true quagmire, and the well-meaning but temperamental gun friends trying to force a straight line out of total chaos.
“Cartel Land” opens with a look at nighttime meth cooks and other such mini-portraits before settling on the big show. On the Mexican side of the drug world, one Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles leads a group of civilians trying to do what no police force or government agency can do: curtail the violent cartels that have overtaken his region by responding in kind. Mireles leads the group “Autodefensas,” who have met with their share of success. But arming the angry and having them wage unregulated war is a good way to break bad, and soon enough corruption and even ties to the notorious Knights of Templar cartel threaten to erode them from within.
In this purgatory, a white Southerner with a checkered past who used to ride around busting “illegals” comes off like the sane one. Heineman juxtaposes Mireles’ tale with that of Tim “Nailer” Foley, member of the “Arizona Border Recon,” who shifted their focus from border jumpers to the drug trade when that proved a more dangerous threat to America. A smaller unit, they spend more time talking than doing, binging on Hannity and waiting for action that rarely comes. Foley could be an American Mireles, if only he got the chance.
Heineman doesn’t editorialize about either, but his feelings are clearly mixed. On one hand his subjects are living in a powder keg situation that isn’t being properly handled — lawless lands where violence truly is around the corner. On the other they’re still armed hotheads with more passion than sense. “What would you do?” and variations are oft-repeated refrains, as though there was only one response to violence. At the same time no one with more sense is appropriately looking after their situations, leading those with few options to respond with equally slippery force. At the same time once more, what “Cartel Land” makes clear is that any good they do is minimal at best, and probably closer to being ineffectual — though desperate men pretending to be badasses but with real guns can’t be all a good thing.