Cartel Land was one of 2015’s most successful documentaries, earning a cavalcade of critical praise and even an Oscar nomination. It’s not hard to see why; Matthew Heineman’s film combines a contentious contemporary issue – Mexico’s fraught, cartel-dominated ‘drug war’ and tensions along the U.S.A./Mexico border – with kinetic, ‘can-you-fucking-believe-they-got-that-shot’ cinematography. It’s the kind of documentary that spends as much time shouldering a camera into a firefight as it does on talking heads and dizzying drone photography.
All that flashiness cleverly disguises the failings of the film; nothing egregious, but little mistakes that compound to make Cartel Land lesser than it could be. For starters, its bifurcated narrative – half north of the Mexican border with ‘anti-cartel’ militia, half south with a crew of ‘anti-cartel’ Mexican citizens (each with decidedly shady motivations) – is a no-starter. The U.S.A. side of the story offers fleeting insights into the anti-authoritarian, largely-racist motivations of the militia, but flounders when trying to stand up to the excitement south of the border. Frankly, it distracts from the film proper, and should’ve been reduced – or omitted entirely – in the edit.
Thankfully, the story down being told down in Mexico is far more compelling. We follow a crew of disgruntled civilians, led by one Jose Mireles (nicknamed “El Doctor”), who call themselves the “Autodefensas” and wage a war – of sorts – on drug cartels and corrupt cops alike with the support of locals (who’ve suffered greatly at the hands of the cartels). Heineman positions their tale as one of nobility, heroism – a revolutionary uprising! But, of course, this is the real world, and it’s not long until the cracks start appearing the Autodefensas’ gleaming façade.
To reveal that the Autodefensas’ descent into all-out villainy – gradually, at first, torturing cartel members for information, influencing starstruck young women, before shifting into drug production themselves once the competition’s out of the way – is maybe a spoiler. But it’s no surprise, really, not if you have any comprehension of how humans – men – grapple with power (or, I dunno, if you studied Animal Farm in school). Heineman’s mistake is that in emphasising the heroic tale upfront, with thrilling footage of gunfights and tense standoffs with crooked police – he diminishes the really interesting tale of how the Autodefensas crumbled into corruption.
Were they corrupted, as the old saying goes, by absolute power? Perhaps – Cartel Land hints at that as it queasily chronicles Mireles’ “seduction” (or strongarming) of one of his female disciples. Or, maybe, they were rotten from the get-go, as Heineman implies late in the piece by revealing the backstories of Mireles’ compatriots, many of whom have their own background in the cartels. There’s even a Napoleon to Mireles’ Snowball, a gruff bearded gent who eventually asserts control over the Autodefensas.
Maybe it’s just me, but the specifics of such power struggles – crumbs tossed to the audience in between blasts of dynamic action – are far more interesting than the observation of the end product. It’s undeniably compelling – and affective – to watch the Autodefensas become precisely that which they set out to combat, but it’s also sort of trite. Good guys become bad guys and the nuances are smoothed over. For a film that describes itself as having “unprecedented access”, I just wish it could have offered some insight as well.
6 thoughts on “Cartel Land (2015)”
Hi Dave – interesting to read your thoughts on this, as always. The inclusion of the USA thread wasn’t that much of an issue for me* and I’m glad it’s there – the simple fact that on both sides of the border you have civilians taking up arms to attempt to solve a problem neither country’s government or military can possibly hope to fix was a clear way of pointing out just how far things have gone (at least for the uninitiated, largely ignorant viewer…me, in this case). I think that worked well as a construct, and Heinemann clearly (thankfully) shows that’s where the similarities either side of the border end. But…and here comes the ‘*’…I agree that it loses momentum when it goes back to the USA, as it’s simply not as interesting as the Autodefensas side of the story, and there’s much less actually worth exploring. I just think because it’s a story about something that’s affecting life on both sides of a border then there’s an argument you should pay more than just lip service to one side. I guess the militia thing in Arizona and other states is a slightly better way of acknowledging the problems in the US than concentrating on, say, Washington DC, so I was interested by it to an extent.
Enjoyed reading regardless of that!
I totally get where you’re coming from, and I think the militia works fine in the first half hour or so as setting the table etc. I wouldn’t want to cut that out! But when it snaps back to it later in the film it saps it of so much momentum …which is fine if it builds to something, but it never really does. I get why they included it, but I don’t think it gets enough substance to warrant it getting that much time in the final cut. Maybe if they’d interrogated the implicit racism of the militia a little more effectively?
I can’t argue with that – definitely slows it down, almost to a standstill. I saw it 6-8 months ago and can’t remember how much exactly was given over to the US stuff. I guess comparing the two is intriguing in the sense that there’s some posturing going on one side of the border and some more direct action on the other, but yeah, I guess it wouldn’t have hurt to chop a bit of the less interesting stuff. Funnily enough, as much as I enjoyed Sicario, I thought /that/ hit a near-standstill with some of the Mexico-set scenes (not the obvious action going on just over the border, but the sub-plot involving the policeman).
Yeah, with you on SICARIO – while I get the purpose of the policeman scenes, they’re about the only part of the film that feels clumsy/obvious to me
I think I would like this documentary; it has more to offer about bringing awareness to a complicated problem than the mistakes you mention. Nice writing, as always, Dave.
There’s definitely a lot to recommend about it – and my comparatively lukewarm take is definitely towards the lower end of the critical scale. I hope you like it!