Living here in Texas, the idea of illegal immigration is a flashpoint topic no matter when or where the conversation arises. Lately, the rhetoric has only grown in volume with Republican candidate Donald Trump (I can’t believe I just typed that….) espousing his very candid views on the matter, stirring the pot even more by saying things that locals and far right wingers have been whispering in the shadows for years.
Regardless of Trump’s overall viability in the social spectrum as we wind closer to the ’16 elections, Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land won’t make the subject any less translucent or easy to explain. In fact, if any film seems to support the radical ideas behind the Trump-politico machine’s bellowing about devious political collusion, countrywide walls and armed guards walking those barriers, then Heineman’s film is it.
Casting a light on both sides of the border, Cartel Land begins with a chilling, impromptu nighttime desert drug cook with masked men as they talk about the ineffective nature of America’s laws to stop or even put a dent in the illegal drug trade. Their arrogant, cocksure explanation of the business as a necessary commerce for both sides of the Americas establishes a clear, virulent enemy from the outset.
From there, Cartel Land follows the “good guys,” first with ex-soldier Tim Foley as he tries to establish order along the Arizona border with his Arizona Border Recon unit, then secondly with Dr. Jose Mireles, a figurehead of the Mexican ‘Autodefensas’ Team. Essentially a band of freedom fighters, Mireles and his soldiers penetrate the Mexican landscape town by town, running the cartels out of them one by one via armed conflict, local intelligence and forced confessions. Not only do they routinely do the work of local police or militia forces, but they then endow the local inhabitants with both self-confidence and loaded weapons to keep the cartels out afterwards.
Filmmaker Heineman embeds himself with both men and captures some truly mesmerizing events, such as a shoot-out that rains upon Mireles and his men as they travel in the area of Michoacan and the almost explosive stand off between his men and the local army in another town. Beat for beat, Heineman and his filmmaking crew are there, documenting both the quiet moments and the loud ones in this war for property, people and financial attribution.
Less immersive than the Mireles portion – which includes some dynamic real life plot points that paint him as a truly flawed, dynamic individual – is the Arizona section that follows Tim “Nailer” Foley and his crew of well-armed vigilantes patrolling the mountains and valleys used by ‘coyotes’ and drug look outs. Perhaps due to Foley’s inability to convey anything more than commando-speak or director Heineman’s lack of relevant material, this portion of Cartel Land pales in comparison to the eloquent posturing, sinewy political subterfuge and rat-a-tat-thriller-like aspects of the Mireles portion. In fact, the film loses momentum any time it shifts back onto the American side. Mireles and his men are fighting for life and death, while it feels like Foley and his ilk are simply playing soldier.
Executive produced by Katheryn Bigelow, Cartel Land could have easily been one of her own muscularly staged semi-fictional spectacles, full of tense set pieces and hierarchical backstabbing. Instead, Heineman’s effort is all too real and mostly charges the viewer in the ways a good documentary is supposed to do, which means it informs, educates and sometimes infuriates.
And in light of ‘anti hero’ TV characters like Walter White on Breaking Bad, there really are wolves in the wilderness, cooking up vats of addiction and laughing at the nonchalance of it all. In that regard, maybe a high wall isn’t so bad after all?
Cartel Land opens at Angelika Film Center Plano and Cinemark Grand Prairie 15 on Friday, July 17.