CityBeat's film section doubles down on documentary this week, so naturally there won't be much in the way of sunshine and rainbows. The blinding effervescent glow of Magic Mike XXL could only last so long.
A lot of nonfiction films are downers, and rightfully so. They address important subject matter out of a sense of urgency and activism, pummeling the viewer with facts, reenactments, talking heads interviews and voice-over narration to incite a reaction. Simply labeling them "relevant" doesn't really address their worth. Cinematic style, structure and pacing separate the wheat from the chaff.
Cartel Land, the latest in a long line of recent films to address the impact of narco violence, has an eye for visual drama yet suffers from narrative imbalance. It tries to illuminate layers of injustice, corruption and institutional decay on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border, but obviously favors one of these narratives over the other. This eventually becomes a damning flaw.
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman first introduces Tim "Nailer" Foley as he traverses the desert stalking "scouts" that work for the Mexican cartels. A recovering addict who lost his construction job to migrants, Foley leads a small militia group named Arizona Border Recon who has now vowed to fight back against the infringing presence of organized crime in the region. He waxes not so eloquently about the dangers of immigration and the failures of border security, trying to explain why his particular brand of rhetoric differs from any other right-wing gun enthusiast. The depth of his story doesn't go much further beyond streotype.
Heineman quickly cuts south to the rural Mexican state of Michoacán, where another vigilante group called Autodefensa led by a local surgeon named Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles has begun a grassroots offensive against cartel strongholds in the surrounding region. Unlike Nailor's pseudo-infantry, these men are seen engaging in firefights with their opponents on the streets with the camera embedded for maximum dramatic impact. Inspired by the action, locals attempt to help, wielding machetes and clubs. Hollywood couldn't make this shit up.
Loved by both his followers and the townspeople he seeks to liberate, Mireles wears a cowboy hat and a bulletproof vest while speaking to crowds—a Latino John Wayne of his own making. His charisma and presence lends Autodefensa a type of righteousness despite their brutal military tactics. As Cartel Land progresses, factions within the group prove themselves to be just as power hungry and corrupt as the drug lords they are fighting to eradicate. This dynamic produces a palpable and fascinating tension that Heineman doesn't always know how to coherently harness.
By juxtaposing both the American and Mexican equivalents of citizen soldiers, Cartel Land explores how the brutalized can become the aggressors after being subjugated to longstanding oppression. It's not just the occupation of land but also the psychological framework of a community that has caused such desperation. We see the impact of this scenario throughout the time Heineman spends with the soldiers and leaders of Autodefensa.
It's clear why Heineman gravitates toward the complex and potentially damning story of Mireles and his men over the whiny ramblings of Foley, whose pain and anguish never feels more than a performance. The former turns out to be far less noble than originally thought, and the latter hints at being far more complex than his screen time suggests. But since the scales are tipped so drastically in Mireles' favor, Cartel Land fails to convey the thematic duality it so desperately wants to achieve.
We are left with a mishmash of intriguing threads. Mexico is once again painted as nation let down by the fallibility of its leaders. America, on the other hand, is represented by a reactionary group of self-described rebels with very little on their minds. For all its visceral cinematography and intense sound design, Cartel Land, which opens Friday, July 10, can't overcome this messy and uneven structure.
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