Documentary filmmaking is at its best when it plays with expectations and tweaks its audiences perceptions in much the same way fictional narratives do. We’ve been blessed in the past few years with several docs that do just this, but Cartel Land is the most visceral and exciting we’ve had in a long time. While other documentarians take risks and talk to dangerous people, Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman puts himself and the audience quite literally in the line of fire. Miraculously, he never loses focus, both in the sense of the camerawork and the overall storytelling, even when scrambling for cover from gunfire.
Cartel Land follows two vigilante leaders on either side of the Mexico-U.S. border, each facing off against Mexican drug cartels in their own way. On the American side, we face Tim “Nailer” Foley, leader of the anti-immigration militia (and recognized hate group) the Arizona Border Recon. A thousand miles south in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, Dr. José Mireles leads the Autodefensas, a rebel group arming themselves and stealing back cartel-occupied territories one by one. Though the film juxtaposes the two, it seems clear at first that they have little in common. Nailer talks a lot about being in the wild lawless west as though he is the leader of a posse, whereas Mireles’ team is actually living it. Early in the film, Nailer delivers a practiced monologue detailing a black-and-white world of “good guys” (us) versus “evildoers” (them). It’s easy to want to get wrapped up in his simplicity and passion, however as the film goes along, it becomes abundantly apparent that the distinction between good men and evil men is blurrier than any movie can accurately portray.
Cartel Land paces itself like an action film in parts as Heineman’s team rides alongside the Autodefensas during their raids on cartel compounds and standoffs against the Mexican military. Heineman seems more concerned with getting the perfect shot than he does his own safety, which is a sense of madness you can’t help but respect. However, this system only seems heroic as long as the Autodefensas are the underdogs. When the tide seems to shift and the Autodefensas become more powerful than their opposition, it feels more like an episode of Cops, complete with the sinking feeling that the “good guys” are acting extra-aggressive because of the cameras. At least that would be the hopeful explanation, but the more likely truth is that their level of unrestrained power turns the vigilante men of the Autodefensas into a crew of torturers and sadists not too dissimilar from the cartels they fight against.
As for the good doctor Mireles himself, his transformation is the most heart-wrenching of all, because it’s not really a transformation at all. The first half of the film is spent building him up to be a paragon of leadership and heroism, which is aided by his natural charm and charisma. However, when dissension threatens to tear apart the Autodefensas’ ranks, darker sides of the man come out. In a handful of scenes, Heineman manages to capture the underlying darkness in an actual “good man” better than most recent fictional treatments of the same theme.
By comparison, Nailer’s characterization is incredibly consistent and his storyline fairly flat, which is sort of the point. Nailer isn’t even portrayed as a hero to begin with. He always comes across a little scared and deluded, locked away from society surrounded by dubious information sources which reinforce his world view. He doesn’t change much, but he and his crew get more and more pitiful as the film goes on. After we’ve seen the Autodefensas face actual gunfire and actual death, Nailer’s crew looks like a group of racist amateurs wandering around the desert, which is precisely what they are.
Cartel Land opens with a masked meth cook explaining to the camera, “We know we do harm, but what can we do? We come from poverty. If we had the opportunity, we would be doing clean jobs, like you.” It’s easy to dismiss this justification at the beginning of the film, but as the movie goes on, you realize that this simple statement goes further to humanize the “bad guys” than anything the delusional “good guys” have to say about themselves. Cartel Land works on multiple levels, serving both as an exhilarating plunge into a war zone, and as an examination of the greater philosophical causes of that war. It’s impossible to watch the film from only one traditionally-expected point of view. Instead, the film forces the audience to question the vigilante mindset in ways they may not actually want to. It’s painful, gut-wrenching, and more than a little depressing. It’s also one of the most important documentaries you’re likely to see all year.Liked This? Share It!