Cartel Land starts with some misdirection. The movie interview candidates are real-life members of cartels manufacturing crystal meth. The director of Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman is gifted with a terrific eye, judging from his detailed documentary about Mexican and American vigilante groups, it’s clear he packs nerves and guts of steel. Using a feathery digital camera, he uses a run-and-gun template for a major portion of the movie. His pictorial quality and camera angles are just fantastic.
A doctor from Mexico initiates a rebellion against the drug cartel that has wreaked destruction in the region for decades. At the same time, an American veteran attempts to prevent the drug war from entering American territory.
The images portrayed in the documentary complicate matters. Cartel Land shows two vigilante groups, one operating in Mexico while the other in the US. They have the same common enemy: drug cartels. Both sides have an impressive leader, Tim Foley on the American side, and Dr. Jose Mireles on the Mexican side, narrating their side of the tales.
Dr. Mireles is introduced in a ghastly manner, involving a family murder and three severed human heads, the rights of self-protection seem logical and necessary. Moreover, the audience is well aware of the Mexican drug trafficking mafia, its drug-related wars and thousands of lives lost in the process. The movie moves at a fast pace without giving the audience time to think about moral/ ethical matters. With scenes involving a lineup of severed human heads and a woman describing murder of her child, the shock and horror are hard to get past.
The documentary switches between Foley and Dr. Mireles for a majority of the running time, showing them as polar opposites with different lives, manner, methods, and presentation styles. They do share common ground when it comes to guns and swagger. According to them, the drug cartels are terrorizing them and it’s up to them to protect themselves as the government turns a blind eye.
As for director Heineman, he wanted the documentary to be presented in a narrative manner and does it competently. The documentary opens with interesting characters, a terrific story arc, fast-paced action and the music score accentuates the documentary even more.
However, director’s own comments on the war on drugs, the vigilante groups and Mexican/ American politics are missing.
Photo credit: Cartel Land movie