Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>Cartel Land</i> (2015)

MISE EN SEAN – Cartel Land (2015)

Sean Hanson

July 17th, 2015

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Our thirst for knowledge about drug cartels might outweigh the thirst for drugs that keeps cartels in business.

By my count, there are more than 200 movies about drug cartels, and five times as many books on the subject. Escobar: Paradise Lost just left theaters, and Sicario is right around the corner. Popular TV series, from Breaking Bad to The Bridge, are fixated on the subject, and an ongoing Mexican-Colombian serial about Escobar’s life is about to air its 217th episode. No doubt, it’s a fascinating topic, but there’s a wealth of information at the ready. In that context, what could a slight 98-minute documentary have to say about such an exhaustively reported subject?

As it turns out, plenty.

For starters, it’s not really a documentary about drug cartels. We see meth cooks at work in the opening scene, expressing apprehension about the morality of how they make their money, but traffickers and kingpins remain largely absent from the picture, as documentarian Matthew Heineman narrows his focus to two vigilantes: minuteman Tim “Nailer” Foley, whose organization patrols vast stretches of the Arizona-Mexico border, and his across-the-border counterpart, Dr. José Mireles, a kindly doctor who’s struck upon a seemingly effective strategy, retaking territory from the cartels town by town and recruiting townspeople along the way to join his ragtag army Autodefensas.

Each of the men has grievances with his respective government. Foley accuses the U.S. of neglecting to secure the border, allowing drug traffickers to move freely between Arizona and Mexico, while Mireles accuses Mexico of colluding with cartels, citing suspiciously low arrest rate. It’s difficult to argue with Mireles. After Autodefensas retakes one town, Mexican soldiers arrive with a peculiar swiftness to urge Mireles’s soldiers to lay down their weapons and leave, supposedly speaking for the townspeople, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Foley’s righteousness is more tenuous: he claims he’s not interested in capturing illegal immigrants who aren’t drug trafficking, but the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies his organization as a hate group, and he’s not exactly respectful of the Mexicans he comes across.

Cartel Land suggests crucial differences between Mireles — well-liked and respected, good with children, motivated by a sincere desire to see towns liberated from cartel occupation, and dedicated to keeping Autodefensas incorruptible — and Foley, who lives in an echo chamber of conservative news from questionable sources and for whom vigilante justice seems to fill a void left by fears of irrelevance. Then again, Cartel Land also complicates that difference, showing us that Autodefensas soldiers are capable of committing despicable acts under the banner of good … and complicates it even further, through an understated scene that comes late in the film (one that’s every bit as good as the final moments of The Jinx) and a series of galling narrative developments in the final act.

Much has been made of Heineman’s ground-level, front-line camera work. He won a special cinematography award, and for good reason: Heineman knows how to frame a shot, even while he’s scrambling to safety during gunfire. The trailer emphasizes that violence, and I suppose it’s as good a reason as any to see Cartel Land. As weird as this sounds, considering these gunfights put real people in real danger, it’s a singularly thrilling film and a bit of a marvel. You might find yourself asking how Heineman gained Nailer’s trust, let alone Mireles’s, or why he was able to film Autodefensas soldiers committing one of the most illegal acts ever captured by a documentarian who has worked so hard to establish that trust.

It’s fascinating stuff, but even Superman has danced in the shifting sands of good and evil. Where Cartel Land shows real insight, and the reason it sits near the top of the pile in an already-incredible year for documentaries, is in its implicit statements about masculinity and nobility, great men and tragic heroes, justice and corruptibility, nationalism and globalization, the perils of patriarchy, moral failures versus genuine evil, how movements splinter, and how a war eventually becomes a stalemate.

“What can I say? We know we do harm,” the drug trafficker says before the two-minute mark, “but what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”

He might be the only man in Cartel Land who sees himself clearly.

Cartel Land opens July 17 at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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