2015 Reviews: Cartel Land

By Bridie Rollins

It is with deceiving ease that Director/Producer/Cinematographer, Matthew Heineman transports us deep into the world of Mexico’s drug cartels.  One could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Cartel Land’ is a work of fiction. The striking cinematic framing along with the interweaving narrative structure seems too clean and polished for the subject matter. This juxtaposition between form and content is perhaps intentional. It leads ultimately to a powerful and provocative cinematic experience, as we follow two vigilante groups, one from each side of the US /Mexican border as they confront the horrors of the cartel war.

Throughout filming Heineman revised his narrative structure. His initial concept focused solely on the story of Tim “Nailer” Foley, an US army vet and former meth user who claims his role is “upholding the law where there is no law.” There is compassion as we witness Foley’s frustration and helplessness at the conflict he is caught between. However, our position is gradually challenged as it becomes apparent that Foley is ultimately concerned with preventing immigration from Mexico to the US, and openly admits that there are racist undertones to the organisation he works for as well as American policy more generally.

In retrospect it is hard to imagine the film without the crosscutting narrative of Dr Jose Manuel Mireles, leader of Autodefensas, a citizens’ paramilitary group. At first Mireles is presented as a grassroots hero, a saviour in Michoacan, a town that has faced constant assault from the drug lords. In a similar vein to Foley however, Mireles complications are gradually revealed throughout the documentary. It is suggested that ultimately the policies of Autodefensas are not wholly different from the cartels. The complexity of the conflict is compounded and the film deprives us of any foreseeable solution.


Critical responses to the documentary have centered upon the weighting of the two narratives, and the accuracy of their representation. However this is not a simple presentation of good versus evil. Heineman does not shy away from either the dangers of filming in such an environment or in exposing the corruption and violence committed by the two groups. This is to the extent that, at moments, as a spectator you find yourself fearing for the safety of the camera crew. Nevertheless the real triumph of the documentary is rooted in its ability to create intimacy in the most epic and violent of circumstances, ultimately connecting us to the human tragedy of the conflict. It is an uneasy watch, raising provocative questions with few straightforward answers.

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