The Mexican-American border is under fire these days. It’s in the sights of politicians promising to build bigger walls and keep our nation safe. But the problem with the border goes far beyond literal walls–issues of economics, drugs, international law, and ultimately ethics all need to be considered here. The Oscar-nominated film Cartel Land attempts to show us both sides of the border and the systems of violence perpetrated by the cartels. The film opens with filmmaker Matthew Heineman watching as a group of Mexican cartel members create meth under the cover of darkness. It’s a scene straight out of Breaking Bad, only this is real life.
On the American side, we follow Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran who patrols the Arizona border with a group of fellow ex-military guys who want to stop illegal immigration and do their best to protect American soil. They wear military gear and do numerous rounds in the Arizona desert, looking for cartel scouts in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Nailer is just the kind of guy you’d expect to be doing this: a toughened, tattooed veteran who saw illegal Mexican immigrants get construction jobs he thought should go to Americans. The motives for these guys is quite mixed, ranging from patriotism to militarism to racism.
On the Mexican side, we follow Dr. Jose Mireles, “El Doctor,” who starts a militia group to fend off the drug cartels in his home of Michoacán. The citizen army enters a town, invites the townspeople to defend themselves and recruits them to the militia, then drives out cartel members by force. Mireles is just an aging local physician who wanted to stop the cartels from killing his neighbors, but becomes a sort of folk hero. Tall and mustachioed, he looks like a Hispanic Sam Elliott, sauntering into town with his ever-present cowboy hat and charming persona.
The film centers primarily on the Mexican side of the border, mostly due to the fascinating character of Mireles. As his militia, called the Autodefensas, continues to grow, his life becomes increasingly threatened and the original pursuit of justice begins to fade (if it was ever there to begin with). While Mireles promises protection and freedom for the people, he also plays the role of judge, jury, and executioner for anyone even suspected of being connected with the cartels. The vigilante justice begins to spiral out of control, and by the final act of the film, we realize that justice has been wholly thwarted by our human tendency towards depravity. On the American side of the border, Nailer and his buddies just really aren’t explored very much, which makes their portions far less interesting. They sit around and chat about what’s wrong with American politics and how they’re doing the right thing, then wander around with their guns. It’s sort of like these guys are playing war in the desert, but there’s little evidence within the film that they’re making much of a difference either way, good or bad. Mireles is the key figure holding the film’s narrative together, and when he’s out of the picture–which is somewhat often by the middle and final acts–it can become an exercise in tedium, just one cartel raid after another. While charming at times, he’s also not explored as fully as he could be, and the one-on-one interviews with him and his wife occur so late in the film they feel too little, too late.
Matthew Heineman is either brave or stupid for making this film, one which features actual people being shot and killed in the streets. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Regardless, the footage he captures in Cartel Land is quite impressive, even when it becomes exhausting to watch. At numerous points the filmmakers are caught in gun battles between cartel members and the Autodefensa militia group. Remember: these are real people using real guns to really kill each other. So while it isn’t as well-edited or choreographed as the latest Hollywood action film, the intensity of the situation is amplified because actual lives are at stake. When a possible cartel member is taken away for questioning by the Autodefensas, one militia member repeatedly shoves his pistol into the back and ribs of the silent hostage. It’s terrifying and tense, because you might be witnessing a man killed before your eyes at any moment by this untrained, trigger-happy citizen warrior. Despite the intense content, the narrative elements of the story are quite thin, which lessens any lasting impact these scenes might contain. It reminded me much of Sicario, a far superior film both in its aesthetic and in its willingness to delve into questions of justice about overwhelming situation at the Mexican-American border. Raw, brutal, and ambitious, Cartel Land may be a real life story, but its limited scope in truly exploring the ideas it raised left me wanting more.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4126304/