Drugs and guns, yes, are bad.
It’s a well-known fact that the Mexican Drug War is a pretty awful one and it only seems to get worse as the years go by, with more laws being passed, and criminal acts being pushed away to the side. But what makes these Wars so awful is the fact that the cartels that run so rampant in/around Mexico, seem to be getting away with it all. After all, they’ve got so many connections in government that they are, essentially, protected and free to do whatever they want. Cries from fellow citizens who have fallen prey, or victim to the cartel and their vicious ways, continue to go unheard from everyone involved with the Mexican government, as well as to the American government who, oddly enough, always make it a point to set out and take down drugs, whenever the world is watching and the cameras are set on them. It’s almost as if these cartels need to be stopped, but if not by the government, then by who? Enter Dr. José Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who is a man of the people, for the people, and is essentially deciding that it’s time to arm fellow citizens who want to stop these cartels’ evil reign, thus creating the Autodefensas. This is an account of the non-stop battle and just how far and wide it’s willing to go.
Above all else, director Matthew Heineman deserves a huge amount of credit for, literally, putting his life on the line here, getting down, dirty, and not shying away from showing the absolute nit, grit and sometimes disturbing parts of this world. Not to mention that, yeah, the guy easily puts himself in some pretty dangerous situations where even he himself could have been killed and left without a film to finish. But because he was so willing to take the risk, he got some truly eye-opening footage that only news-outlets like CNN, or FOX, only dream that they could get and talk about.
And for that alone, Cartel Land is well worth the watch.
It provides a bird’s-eye view of what’s really happening in this awful and downright sadistic drug-war, without ever batting an eye away from the truly disgusting nature of it all. While it’s easy to assume that Heineman himself has an agenda here of showing the good guys taking down the bad guys, one by one, little by little, it soon becomes clear that in this war, nothing is ever black and white, therefore, nor should the documentary. It’s safe to say that Heineman, whether intentionally or not, got a lot of footage that should seem sneaky and awfully scary, but it also seems like these cartels and Autodefensas truly liked him around – it’s like they say, “no exposure, is bad exposure”.
But what works best in Cartel Land‘s favor is that, even though Heineman is able to get a lot of great, absolutely stunning footage, he’s also able to show that there’s more going on beneath the surface of this war. The idea that the Autodefensas who so clearly want to take down the cartel, sooner than later, end up adapting to the same tactics and maneuvers as them, is an obvious road the movie takes, but it also deserves to be seen. It calls into question just what constitutes a certain level of death and violence, but also what really matters: Human lives, or dignity?
In Cartel Land, there’s no easy answers and it’s why the movie’s hard to shake off.
The only aspect of it that is easy to shake off and, honestly, a downside to an otherwise compelling flick is the B-story Heineman takes it upon himself to constantly fall back on. Every so often, whenever the film is focusing on the Autodefensa and Mireles, it’s focusing on a man named Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, who is fighting the battle on the front-lines of the Border. It should be interesting stuff, but honestly, feels a little misplaced; Heineman seems to be showing this man’s adventure and dangerous journey to help make better sense of what’s going on down deep inside of Mexico, but it doesn’t quite resonate. If anything, it just takes away from any of the intensity made from everything involved with the actual cartels.
Not that this material wouldn’t already be interesting elsewhere, it’s just that everything else Heineman seems to be getting and doing with the cartels, is already plenty enough, so why pack on anymore?
Consensus: With a stunning and shocking amount of footage taken at such close-lengths to everything, Cartel Land is pretty exciting and eye-opening, as well as a thoughtful and interesting look at the current war on drugs and why, unfortunately, it’s basically a lost cause for all involved.
7.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire