“There’s an imaginary line between good and evil,” observes a shadowy figure in the scintillating new documentary, Cartel Land. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Director Matthew Heineman’s embedded examination of impassioned citizens fighting Mexican drug cartels is surrounded by moral quicksand. It’s also packed with more revelations and plot twists than most Hollywood dramas. Boots-on-the-ground guerilla filmmaking has never looked better or posed more thought-provoking questions.
Perhaps the most in-depth consideration of vigilantism ever filmed, Cartel Land infiltrates civilian forces fighting the drug trade on both sides of the Mexico/US border. In Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a small band of heavily-armed men called the Arizona Border Recon, as they patrol a 52 mile stretch known as “Cocaine Alley.” Foley and his compatriots, exasperated by their government’s lack of political will, walk the rugged countryside in search of drug scouts crossing over from Mexico. “Technically, we are vigilantes upholding the law where there is no law,” Foley concedes. A reasonable pronouncement that is quickly tinged by paranoia as Foley continues, “The phrase ‘vigilante’ has been given a bad name by the media.” Such is the complicated nature of Cartel Land; it’s nearly impossible to distinguish virtuous crusaders from dangerous rebels and marginalized wingnuts.
Meanwhile, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles has had enough. Motivated by complicit institutions that refuse to stop the gangland-style assassinations of the Knights Templar Cartel, Mireles forms a citizen task force called the Autodefensas. Town by town, the Autodefensas drives out the cartels and empowers the victimized citizens to retake control. Mireles quickly ascends to cult stardom; beloved by many and despised by a powerful few. With stardom comes temptation, however, and it’s not long before Mireles faces corrupting forces, both from within his organization and from his own personal demons.
It’s easy to see why Cartel Land took directing honors and a Special Jury Prize for cinematography at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Director Matthew Heineman (who shared cinematography duties with Matt Porwoll) fills his gritty documentary with surprisingly-lush visuals. An opening sequence, for instance, features some cartel “chefs” cooking-up an evening batch of methamphetamine in the desolate wilderness. Enveloped in a plume of toxic smoke backlit by car headlights, this ominous scene resembles something you might see in a Michael Mann or Roger Deakins highlight reel.
More impressively, all of these stylistic flourishes serve a narrative purpose. When Heineman replays this meth cooking scene (nearly shot-for-shot) at the film’s conclusion, the intervening 90 minutes have completely changed the context. At the beginning of the film, when an anonymous cook gravely intones, “If we start paying attention to our hearts, then we’ll get screwed over,” it sounds like nothing more than a morally-bankrupt rationalization. By the end of the film, because we now know the cook’s name and where he comes from, it’s laced with an added layer of ambiguity. Through interviews, visuals, and clever editing, Heineman constantly shifts the moral landscape, forcing us to look deeper inside an extremely complicated social and cultural problem.
In fact, Heineman’s editing crew is largely to thank for making Cartel Land so interesting. Not only do they splice together a propulsive tale of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains, they withhold valuable information for as long as possible. There are no buttoned-down university experts to guide us through this maze of pushers and vigilantes. There is no playbook for cartel conduct and today’s hero may be tomorrow’s villain. Revelations and reversals are a daily part of life in this world, a fact brilliantly portrayed by Heineman and his editors.
The Mexico plotline (following Mireles) makes for non-stop compelling drama. You feel as though you’re watching the ascension of a Castro-like figure. Charisma and intelligence seep from his every pore. He’s a born motivator of men who embraces the spotlight a bit too much. Sadly, Foley doesn’t fare as well on the American side of things. His time on camera is limited to making speeches about the lawlessness of the land. He’s not a bad guy, though there is an undercurrent of racial hostility amongst his crew that makes for some uncomfortable viewing. Mainly, Foley serves as the spiritual counterpart to Mireles; each man fights against the lawlessness with their own brand of justice. Watching Mireles live with the daily threat of assassination makes you wonder if Foley really understands the dark places to which his rebellion might lead him.
For all the evil and pain that it brings, there is no denying the profitability of the drug trade. Cartel Land understands that with economic opportunity comes moral corruption. Good men will falter, just as bad men will make compromises to ensure they’re on the winning team. Heineman is neither espousing a position of moral relativity nor passing judgment on anyone. By taking us deep inside the drug war, he introduces us to characters normally relegated to the evening news. They are flesh and blood family men whose ideals are not always beholden to the harsh realities of survival. It’s powerful stuff that gets murky at times. In a war that seems almost futile, sometimes all we can hope for is a better understanding of the soldiers.