Startling access yields strong if not consistent results in “Cartel Land,” Matthew Heineman’s parallel portrait of vigilantes policing two different fronts of the drug war. Focusing on the leaders of two groups — one in charge of a citizens’ anti-cartel organization known as the Autodefensas, another the head of a self-appointed border patrol in Arizona — the pic finds most of its best moments in the action-packed scenes south of the Rio Grande. Further fest play is a given, with TV showings (courtesy of presenter A&E) and perhaps a limited theatrical release representing its most likely future. A Sundance directing prize can only help.
Like Heineman’s “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare,” “Cartel Land” goes to great lengths to appear evenhanded but also plays as more of a sampler than an in-depth analysis. Some of the most jaw-dropping footage provides the film’s bookends. The movie begins with a scene of meth cookers at work in the dead of night; a masked man with a gun tells us that an American father and son who studied chemistry taught them to make the drug (shades of “Breaking Bad”). “We know we do harm with all the drugs” that go to the United States, he says, giving the doc as direct a thesis statement as it could ask for. “But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.” Right from the start, it’s clear that this will be an ultra-close-range portrait of the drug war — a popular topic in recent movies both fictional (“Miss Bala,” “Heli”) and not (“Narco Cultura,” “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty”).
One of the pic’s two central figures is Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a black-hat-wearing cowboy type who introduces himself to a crowd as a general coordinator of the Autodefensas, a citizens’ paramilitary group with the goal of putting an end to the violence that cartels have perpetuated in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Mireles is not exactly camera-shy; more than once, he is approached by someone who has seen him on TV. In a couple of manipulative “gotcha” moments, Heineman reveals that the swaggering Mireles is a surgeon and a grandfather. Still, there’s real drama as he struggles to define the organization and prevent it from succumbing to the forces it’s designed to combat. On a number of occasions, the movie raises the prospect that the Autodefensas’ policing tactics may not ultimately differ so much from the cartels’.
Heineman crosscuts Mireles’ story with that of vet Tim “Nailer” Foley, who leads Arizona Border Recon, listed as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Initially eager to prevent immigration from Mexico (in a talking-head interview, he rants about “illegals”), the gravel-voiced Foley says his goal is now to keep cartel activity from the United States. “The phrase ‘vigilante’ — it’s been given a bad name by the media,” he says, adding that it wasn’t such a bad thing “back in the day.” The camera is present for night-vision patrolling, but Foley’s half of the movie comes across as the decidedly lesser one. While the film often seems to regard Foley as purehearted in his motivations, it acknowledges the presence of racist elements in his organization, and the narrative thread never reaches its potential for political or social complexity.
There’s no lack of immediacy in the footage south of the border, where Heineman, who filmed with a small crew and served as one of his own cinematographers, captures the eruption of live fire, a gunpoint interrogation in the back of a moving car and even a scene of torture. Several instances make you fear for the filmmakers’ safety. There are no solutions posed; “Cartel Land” vividly conveys the sense that this cycle of violence can’t be stopped as long as anyone who tries to take charge (including, the film suggests, government forces in Mexico) is susceptible to corruption. While the movie initially seems to see the Autodefensas as heroic, that perspective grows knottier with each new violent episode. There is a pointed moment when a man at a gathering of residents challenges a Mireles ally known as Papa Smurf. “You are usurping the law,” he says, “and it’s not your place to do it.”
Although shot in ‘Scope, the doc was projected with letterboxing, with subtitles outside the frame except during one scene in which the subjects’ identities are hidden. The pic’s lush, aestheticized imagery is an impressive surprise, and the film has no shortage of ace handheld work. Some of the more hackneyed presentational elements (time-lapse clouds, a button-pushing score) are beneath the material.