By Michael McNulty
An intense, thrilling piece of frontline film-making. Cartel Land’s in the thick of it, run and gun, handheld cinematography is enough to enjoy on its own. The film opens in the middle of the Mexican desert in the dead of the night as a group of cartel members cook up a batch of meth. One admits, as thick white smoke swirls in the black around them, that what they are doing is wrong, but that if they listen to their hearts “they’ll get screwed over.” This is the core of Heineman’s film; it is a film that explores morality and the cyclical nature of corruption.
Cartel Land spreads it narrative across two different fronts. In Arizona’s Altar Valley Tim “Nailer” Foley patrols, with his rag-tag, self-named team, Arizona Border Recon, a thin strip of US/Mexican border known as Cocaine Alley looking to apprehend “illegals” and drug smugglers.
Far from the Arizona desert in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Heineman dives into a world of misery. Here, a corrupt government no longer hold the faith of the people and ruthless drug cartel, Knights Templar, regularly conduct kidnappings, raids and mass murders. Taking the law into his own hands, José “El Doctor” Mireles leads a heavily armed paramilitary group – Grupo Autodenfsa Comunitaria – in the taking back of a number of the state’s towns. This is where Heineman really takes the prize, as he charges, camera first, into raging gun battles with bullets whizzing and people storming properties. Its heart thumping, exhilarating stuff and a part of you cheers as you watch communities who have been torn apart reclaim their towns and lives. However, then you are confronted with the bitter reality of it all, as two Knights Templar members are apprehended and beaten before being thrown into the back of trucks destined to a fate we never learn of.
Heineman jumps between these two narratives, the former the weaker of the two, and slowly things begin to unravel. The motives of Foley’s Arizona Border Recon become clearer and his ultra-patriotic drive to keep America safe reveals itself to be nothings more than thinly veiled racism. A former meth addict with a strained relationship with his father, and who lost his job in the recession, Foley, like many it feels, has found a misguided way to direct a mountain of frustration.
Meanwhile, Autodefensa success has grown so great that they slowly begin to transform and what could have passed as an honourable effort to restore basic order in a lawless land, can only be seen as another threatening force. They now raid homes, taking what they feel is owed to them, pick up suspects based on feeling, and conduct brutal interrogations. Mireles and the Autodefensa find themselves struggling to maintain a line of justice. It becomes apparent that it’s only a matter of time before they fall victim to the corruption that has failed them and they have been fighting against.
With the meat of the film, taking place in Michoacán, it raises the question why Heineman paired these two stories together. Both Foley and Mireles are bound by a common goal, but one seems more urgent and tangible whilst the other seems to be prejudice dressed in military fatigues futilely roaming around a tiny strip of the Arizona desert.
Cartel Land is released in cinemas Friday September 4th.