Movie Review: Cartel Land

The documentary offers a ton of footage but lacks substantive examination.

Cartel Land
Written and directed by Matthew Heineman
Opens Fri., July 24, at AMC Veterans, Tampa.

A Cannes darling, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land takes the viewer to anti-cartel resistance on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The film splits its attention between vigilante patrols in Arizona led by Tim “Nailer” Foley and the Autodefensas, a rebel group in Michoacan led by Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. These two men are our windows into two decidedly different worlds; two worlds that, despite the film’s insistence, are not comparable in the slightest.

It took four editors to carve out the film’s 100-minute runtime from what must have been hundreds of hours of footage, but somewhere along the way they forgot to offer any opinion on it. We bear witness to the rise of the Autodefensas, prying back town after town from the cartels, and then, suddenly, see them swallowed up by the same corruption they fought against. It’s a narrative cleanly presented without editorializing: Heineman doesn’t plaster the film with voiceover, letting the subjects speak for themselves.

However, in juxtaposing Mireles and his resistance with the self-styled “Arizona Border Recon,” Heineman shoots himself in the foot. Foley explicitly sees himself as a white-hat cowboy defending the townsfolk (“If not me, then who?”), although we never actually see his patrols in combat. He rails against “the media” for vilifying vigilantes and the police for not protecting … well, someone. Foley admits eventually that after he lost his construction job, he felt he had to “do something” about the influx of immigrants that, yes, are taking our jobs. Only later did the Border Recon rebrand itself as defending an amorphous citizenry from cartel violence.

And of course, one of Foley’s men comes right out and asks the question “Why would you put two races in the same nation and expect them to get along,“ in case a group of leathery, Hannity-watching white men combing the Arizona border for stray Mexicans didn’t quite ping your racist radar.

Whatever your political persuasion, though, the Arizona material clearly struggles for relevance against the vital, complex Mexican story. Where Foley talks about a sort of cartel apocalypse bearing down on him and his men, the Autodefensas are living it, and formally equating the two by intercutting them is disingenuous. One woman tells of fifteen people slaughtered by the cartels over money — “They grabbed [the infants] by their tiny feet and smashed them against the rocks.” Another woman testifies to being tortured physically and psychologically by the cartels, tossed in a mass grave and left to live with the scars. Foley, for his part, talks ominously about an “invasion.” You can guess what he means.

The film won a special award for cinematography, and it’s flashy enough to warrant it. Heineman shoots in 2:35:1, and he frequently pushes subjects to the edges of the widescreen frame when he has the opportunity,relegating them to the landscape. When gunfights erupt, he thrusts himself into the situation with startlingly little self-regard: at one point, he tumbles out of a car and the frame remains white-hot overexposed until his hand visibly adjusts the lens. But however appealing the pastel creaminess of his verite images, the fact remains that, in cutting together the stories of people rising up against violent oppression and people actively searching for violence, Heineman displays zero perspective on the material.

Perhaps Cartel Land trusts its viewers to understand the gulf between Arizona and Mexico. That’s a big “if.” Heineman shies away from moments that might damn the Autodefensas before he’s ready to introduce that narrative, like glossing over Mireles ordering the death of a captured cartel member and refusing to show the full extent of the Autodefensas’ use of torture, and juicing footage of shootouts with a bargain-bin action score suggests he’s not entirely beyond overt methods of inducing audience response.

And even if the film intends to subtly evoke the obvious disparity between its two stories it lacks the wider context that would make that stick. For all Heineman’s willingness to toss himself into gunfights, he’s surprisingly timid when it comes to diving into similarly volatile interrogative waters. He doesn’t push or prod his subjects; he offers less point-of-view than a wildlife documentary. The film moves, but without purpose. By documenting the horrors in Michoacan and failing to make that footage meaningful, by trivializing it via comparison, Cartel Land merely offers voyeurism.

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