Directed by Matthew Heineman
Another Oscar-nommed documentary feature, “Cartel Land” is chock full of information about how the actions of Mexico’s drug cartels are regarded and dealt with, both within the municipalities they lord over, and by a segment of American society that shares the border with Mexico.
Alas, as a film, it’s just not very good.
First, the good. Heineman has located, as his focal points, two extremely interesting characters…both self-proclaimed vigilantes. The first is Jose Manuel Mireles, the founder of a militant group that, armed to the teeth, goes in to these terrorized townships and attempts to clear them of Cartel gang members – with mixed results and mixed acceptance from the townspeople. The second is an Arizona man who has formed and runs a Militia whose job is to “safeguard” the border against Cartel activity.
But that’s where the intrigue ends. In Heineman’s attempt to tell two stories at once, both suffer and, ultimately, fail.
The focus on the former (Mireles) is the much more fleshed out story with an actual narrative, even if that narrative gets quite lost and confusing by the end. I’m sure that’s one of the director’s points…that up is down and down is up…but it would have landed better had that idea been made a part of the film’s illumination. As it is, it feels like a chunk of the story has been left out…like we put the film on pause, went to grab a glass of wine, and when we came back, the film had skipped ahead by ten minutes or so. It really is all over the place by the end.
The second story line is a total mish mash. The protagonist comes across as a bit of a lunatic, but with the best of intentions (even if those intentions are just so much xenophobic dogma). The ride-alongs never amount to much of a climax and there seems to be little to no connection to the other narrative. Although, I will say, the explanations by other members of the organization as to why they joined up, are fascinating. I found myself wishing there had been more of that.
But, worst of all, somehow the sum of its parts is quite dull. Shocking, really, when you think of the premise – and the life and death nature of the camera’s POV in the Mexican portion of the story. As a result, you stick with it merely to say that you did, not because it drives you to the end. And, alas, that end is a shrug – and a couple title cards, of course.
I couldn’t tell you what the film’s point of view is, other than war is hell. And we don’t need another doc to tell us that. An Oscar-nominated film should have a very specific focus…and since this film was nominated over such incredible films as “Best of Enemies”, “The Hunting Ground” and “Listen To Me, Marlon”, I’m very surprised and disappointed. You can skip it unless you have a keen interest in this area of our current culture or want to watch all the nominated films. I would pick any of the other docs mentioned above, and maybe a dozen or so more, to watch instead of this. Sorry.
Written on 2/15/2016