“There’s an invisible line out there between good and evil.”
In Cartel Land, that line being referenced is the border between the United States and Mexico. Director Matthew Heineman’s Oscar-nominated documentary explores stories from both sides of that line, and proves that the truth is far from simply good versus evil.
The film has three main narrative threads: a small militia in Arizona that patrols the border, armed to the teeth and dressed in camouflage; a doctor in Michoacán who is the leader of the Autodefensas squads (armed citizens who oppose cartels and government troops), which spread like wildfire across southern Mexico; and various civilians whose lives and families are impacted daily by the cartel violence.
If there is one clear message from Cartel Land, it is that there are very few clear heroes in the current drug war in Mexico. One anonymous meth cooker in Mexico tells the filmmakers, “What can we do? We know that what we make does harm, but we come from poverty. If we pay attention to our hearts then we’ll get screwed over.” A vigilante named Tim “Nailer” Foley in Arizona sees himself as “David” in a David and Goliath struggle, while others see him as overzealous and dangerous. While Foley himself doesn’t mention any objective aside from stopping the drug flow, one member of his tiny militia certainly harbors some overtly racist views and motivations. Doctor José Manuel Mireles seems- for most of the film- like a pillar of his community and a devoted family man, only to exhibit behavior later on which will likely change the viewer’s image of him.
Heineman and his crew (he and Matt Porwoll are credited as cinematographers) are admirable in their “show, don’t tell” ethos. There is no overbearing narration spelling things out for the audience. People must pay attention, and if they do, the story becomes clear. The filmmakers are on the ground with the Autodefensas teams on numerous occasions, including firefight confrontations with local cartel members. Seeing these raw interactions (which include citizens confronting the men who have killed their family members) strikes a nerve with audiences which simply can’t be recreated by a talking head or reenactments. Hats off to those who willingly went into dangerous situations to put the audience in the midst of the action. Many of the sequences are far more thrilling and entertaining than action films with staged car chases and explosions could hope to be.
In addition to this action, there are scenes of heart-wrenching drama. At one point, a group of Autodefensas stop a Jeep which they think was shooting at them. A man and his family are inside. The men with guns begin to roughly question him while his very young daughter becomes completely distraught, sure that her father is going to die. “Please, don’t hurt him! I will kill myself if you hurt him. I will get a knife and kill myself!” Perhaps this sounds overly dramatic, but who knows what this kid has seen and heard in her short life? Her father is taken somewhere for questioning, which turns out to be a room full of screaming men, all being tortured by the armed citizenry. Even with no idea who any of these people are, the scene is gut-wrenching. The girl’s father sits still, his face contorted with the anxiety of waiting his turn while screams ring in his ears.
The film’s biggest flaw is its score. It is sparing in its use of music, but often the familiar strumming of an acoustic guitar trickles in, some riffs you’ve probably heard in at least a dozen films set in Mexico or near the border. This is the same problem I mentioned in my SXSW capsule review of Transpecos. Both are overall very good films, but I really don’t need to hear that soft, frenetic acoustic guitar strumming in a film about Mexico or the border ever again. Does this sound like I’m picking a nit? Well, if you’d seen as many movies about Mexico as I have in the past few years, you’d probably have an issue with it, too. I worked on the pre-production for a film set in northern Mexico, and attended a table read. During the talk-back, one of the actors mentioned a cliché in the script that he didn’t like. He said it felt like a shortcut to Mexican culture, “like when they do that acoustic guitar thing,” and then imitated the exact type of music found in these films. “It’s like, we get it, now we’re in Mexico. Also, a lot of those riffs are from Spain, not Mexico.” In addition to those riffs, there are some bombastic pieces that seem over-the-top.
What’s shown in Cartel Land is only the tip of the iceberg in this ongoing war on drugs and war for power over the narcotics trade. That’s not a slight on the film; they would need at least a 10-part HBO series to really, truly flesh out the history and minutiae involved.
What it does quite well is give an overview of the differing viewpoints on all sides, especially in the town square meeting scenes between local citizens and the leaders of the Autodefensas squads. Early in the film, the people of Apo are enthusiastic about joining the Autodefensas mission to oppose the government troops. Later on though, as Dr. Mireles is sidelined by an injury, his organization starts to exhibit shady behavior and the citizens of other towns are no longer so happy to see them. The story of the Autodefensas is a tale all too familiar to those who have seen the past few generations of government changeover in Mexico. It starts with promise, and perhaps genuinely good intentions, only to fall into the wrong hands or be corrupted from within.
The film’s conclusion fits so perfectly into a dramatic arc that if it were written, people might think it was a little too much. By the end, many will not know who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is evil. This is to the film’s credit. Knowing who to trust and believe in with regards to these issues is like putting together a puzzle, but it’s one where you don’t have all the pieces and the shape of it changes as you go.