Thursday, 7 December 2017

Review #1,274: 'Cartel Land' (2015)

The invention of small and easy-to-use digital cameras has had a massive impact on the documentary genre, with film-makers now able to throw themselves into the thick of the action without the worry of having to lumber around an arsenal of bulky and heavy equipment with an extensive crew. Matthew Heineman uses this new weapon to devastating effect in Cartel Land, closely tailing murderous members of the Knights Templar Cartel in Mexico while playing ride along with a vigilante group calling themselves Autodefensas. Heineman clearly possesses balls of steel, as we find ourselves witnessing first-hand explosive gun-fights in the streets and close-up vigilante beatings, all the result of society's reaction to living in fear of cartel violence. It's a scary portrait of a country seemingly locked in a cycle of corruption and brutality, and how its influence has spilled over to the borders of the U.S..

There are two stories in Cartel Land, with one understandably receiving more focus and screen-time than the other. In Michoacan, Mexico, surgeon and public speaker Jose Manuel Mireles - known as 'El Doctor' - has formed the Autodefensas, a group of citizens who have lived under the cartel's tyranny for too long. They move from town to town, successfully driving out the gang members and receiving the adoration and support of the residents in the process. The government has labelled them a dangerous vigilante organisation operating outside of the law, but in one scene they manage to drive away the military with the backing of fellow citizens as their power and influence rapidly increases. In the U.S., Tim 'Nailer' Foley heads the Arizona Border Retcon, another vigilante group with the task of stopping illegal immigration. As cartel violence spilled into their towns, their job became significantly more difficult, hampered further by the government's inability or unwillingness to help.

Despite your personal views on vigilante justice, Cartel Land begins with painting both Mireles and Foley as men with good intentions. They both live in a lawless land where the government have either abandoned them or actually contributed to the growing issues. Yet their actions also have consequences. Mireles' 'Robin Hood' persona soon starts to peel away with suggestions of infidelity and a ballooning ego, and the solidarity of the Autodefensas starts to wobble as in-group power plays and cartel infiltration emerge. The goals of Foley and the Border Retcon attract the most right-wing nutcases with questionable motives, and although he is happy for the help, it has led to the group being labelled an extremist organisation. There is an imbalance to the amount of screen-time given to these parallel stories, but Cartel Land succeeds as an honest and eye-opening account of how people can rally together when their supposed protectors have abandoned them, but also how vigilante justice amidst widespread corruption can have devastating consequences.

Directed by: Matthew Heineman
Starring: José Manuel 'El Doctor' Mireles, Tim 'Nailer' Foley
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Cartel Land (2015) on IMDb

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