Cartel Land, 2015.
Directed by Matthew Heineman.
With unprecedented access, CARTEL LAND is a riveting, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy – the murderous Mexican drug cartels.
Though Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land is ostensibly about two vigilante groups battling drug cartels either side of the US-Mexico border, this was never really their story to influence. Bookended by scenes of cartel members cooking up barrels of meth in the black of night, Cartel Land ends as it starts: with the criminals conducting business as usual. Forget whatever honour there might be in fighting back – these cartel soldiers come across like the sanest people in the film, recognising there’s no use in swimming against the tide. Instead of refusing to cooperate with the ruling gangs, the smart ones choose to profit and stay alive.
Within these demoralising bookends, Cartel Land unfolds like a great thriller, complete with the lead movie stars appropriate for such a project. In Arizona’s Altar Valley, Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, a man with the battered, sun-dried features of Scott Glenn, scours the border landscape as head of Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary team dedicated to preventing Mexico’s drug wars from pouring over into America. In Mexico’s Michoacán region, Dr. Jose Mireles, an Omar Sharif-alike in a black cowboy hat, leads the Autodefensas, an armed civilian rebellion fighting back against the ruthless Knights Templar.
How the two men proceed on their missions is constantly surprising. Though motivated by a deep-set jealousy of Mexican illegals “taking American jobs”, Foley is a man convinced patriotism, not xenophobia, is what drives him, without realising that what he really seeks is his abusive father’s approval. Mireles, meanwhile, is an even more fascinating and complex figure, a charismatic family man looking to safeguard his neighbours, but who may also be in the revolution game for reasons of vanity (and for the extra-marital affairs, one of which is amusingly recorded when Mireles, forgetting he’s mic’d up, visits a much younger lover).
‘Nailer’ Foley’s part-time vigilantes, who get less screen-time and who are seen patrolling the border chiefly in anticipation of some sense of excitement or purpose, can only pale in comparison to Mireles and his outfit. Whereas Foley and his team spend much of their time watching television or putting the world to rights, the Autodefensas story is a stinging, visceral portrait of a revolution going wrong. Anyone who’s seen Steven Soderbergh’s Che can easily anticipate the trajectory.
The story of ‘El Doctor’ Mireles begins, like Soderbergh’s picture, as an optimistic cry for change at the grass roots, and ends with the hero betrayed and compromised, his comrades succumbed to the corruption they’ve been rallying against. And over a year in Michoacán, Heineman witnesses everything – shootouts, uprisings, possible assassination attempts and executions (the deed is mercifully absent, though the aftermath is shown).
Embedded deep in the ranks of the Autodefensas, Heineman’s camera captures scenes of combat that Hollywood should envy. In one key sequence, the Autodefensas surround two trigger-happy Knights Templar suspects hidden in a newly-liberated town, and Heineman’s camera seems to be almost leading the charge. As the accused are apprehended by the local hero soldiers, most notably one emotional individual whose uncle was killed on Knights Templay orders, it’s impossible not to get swept up by the sense of triumph.
Alas, the triumph gives way to crushing disappointment. Templar members infiltrate the rebellion, the group is swallowed up by a Mexican government at the very least tolerant of the cartels, and Mireles is ousted by understudies who prove themselves to be as self-serving as the gangsters. In a particularly shattering turn, the film’s diminutive and luxuriously hirsute comic relief, an Autodefensas lieutenant with the nickname Papa Smurf, reveals himself to be one of the worst offenders.
Because the film is set up to manufacture hope at the outset then stamp it out before the credits roll, the message is crushing. We know the war on drugs has been problematic, but Cartel Land lays out in brutal fashion how rigged the game actually is. When good men arise, Heineman seems to be arguing, it’s only a matter of time before they’re either broken or made into martyrs. Over in Arizona, Nailer Foley ends the movie lamenting the war’s foreseeable continuation, but, following a breakthrough with his father, finds his own personal closure. No such comfort is due south of the border, where fighting the corruption is not a mere hobby, but a constant struggle that’s affecting every walk of life.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.