Cartel Land splits its focus between two stories, one on each side of the border. In Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley organizes ragtag group of patriots to protect the border from the spillover of cartel violence. In the Michoacan region of Mexico, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles forms a ragtag group of citizens to take arms and fight the cartels bringing violence into their towns. One of these problems is visceral; the other, paranoid. It’s no surprise that the Mexican portions of Cartel Land are the real selling point, containing the most interesting personalities and also the most interesting and unsettling events along with the most room for interpretation and questioning. While the American side matters less at the end of the day (and appropriately gets much less screen time), it puts into focus the theme. Cartel Land, despite its title, is not about cartels. Cartel Land is a harrowing, engrossing, and dare-I-say important film on the perils and potential necessity of vigilantism.
The film opens with a brief interview at portable meth lab in Mexico, which is the one divergence it takes into something portrayed unambiguously as a crime. It doesn’t glamorize or vilify it though; the cooks speak coherently, give justifications for what they do, and admit their contribution to greater societal wrongs. Admitting wrong does not forgive wrong, but it sets an interesting tone for the remainder. At many points, different viewers will likely disagree about when a line was crossed, or what people are “good” vs. “evil”. Indeed, on many a stump speech, the cartel is called out as “evil”, and their actions surely reflect that characterization. But not a soul fits the definition of “good”.
The best example is Dr. Mireles, surgeon turned freedom fighter general. Mireles is educated, inspiring, and (by all evidence presented) well-intentioned. The group he is instrumental in starting, the Autodefensas, seems to do good and finds unexpected success driving out cartel influence (the degree of success is truly shocking). It only makes it all the more heartbreaking when corruption does set in slowly but surely. Does it make Dr. Mireles and the others bad people? Or does moreso comment on how grassroots efforts are unsustainable without rigid and earnest oversight? The situation is fascinating and deeply upsetting, and Mireles himself is an absolutely fascinating personality.
But perhaps this is burying the lede. The camerawork in Cartel Land is extraordinary. On multiple occasions, the camera is present during live firefights. When a suspected cartel member is apprehended late in the film, the subsequent standoff is more tense than any staged confrontation in years. The access to Mireles himself seems nearly unlimited, with almost no need to cut to news broadcasts or any external sources. It all feels very real, very organic, and very dangerous.
Cartel Land works on nearly all levels. The camera work provides visceral entertainment. The journalism inside is open-ended and intriguing. The “characters” are simultaneously despicable, aspirational, and heartbreaking. Even Nailer Foley, who repeats himself far too often, is granted an even-handed portrayal. Cartel Land wants you to make up your own mind, which is its most admirable trait and also its most demanding.
Cartel Land (2015)
Dir. Matthew Heineman
Main Subjects Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and Time “Nailer” Foley
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)