SIFF Film Review – Cartel Land

Cartel Land

Cartel Land

Cartel Land‘s look at those who have taken it upon themselves to fight back against corruption shows that even those with the greatest of intentions have their own inner demons that make them less than the ideals they hold. Director Matthew Heineman took a big risk going behind the scenes of vigilante groups seeing them work in the field and telling their viewpoints of the world around them. His own courage to even go there should be praised, but what he is able to capture is what makes this such a powerful experience.

Jumping right in,we hear from some actual cartel members as they start to mix chemicals to create meth. They mention that they are poor and this is the way to make money. They say they wish there was a more honest way to make a living but this is life in Mexico and cartels are some of the easiest ways to make money. We counter that hearing about the horrors the cartels have inflicted, and see pictures of some of their victims before seeing what is being done about these criminals.

In Mexico Dr. Jose Mireles founded the Autodefensas, a group devoted to getting rid of the Templar Cartel in the state of Michoacan. His group works with communities to rid them of the cartel and then moves on to other towns. They at first seem to be working for positive change with town folk joining in on the crusade and even forcing the army to return the Autodefensas’s weapons. As we follow the group we see some of the lengths they are willing to go to stop the cartel, becoming a law in and of themselves, including raiding homes of suspected cartel members and potentially using even more illegal methods.

Cartel Land Movie Still 1

We contrast this with the Arizona Border Recon founder Tim Foley and his group that works to stop the Templar Cartel from bringing people across the border. He also mentions that he founded the group because he couldn’t get a construction job with so many illegals taking them.  One of his other members compares races having to be together like having two dogs in the same pen fighting. Yet we see his group actually capture illegals sneaking in, including cartel groups that appear to be his main focus now.

What does this all mean? We see people doing good even if their motives are suspect and also see them doing bad in the name of doing work that no one else wants to do. Corruption is rampant on all levels in this kind of fight.  Trying to find the clear-cut good guy is impossible; they are all human beings with weaknesses, fears and biases. Mireles portrays himself as a moral crusader and for most of the film we follow his journey fighting the cartel while also trying to get the police and government to stay out of his way since they do not trust him and he thinks most are in the pockets of the cartels. Some people believe in him and see the state as so corrupt that they can trust only him. Yet we see that he has his own issues, things that do not take away from his good work but show that he is a man and as such is capable of sin.

Cartel Land Movie Still 2

Director Matthew Heineman does not cut away from ugly truths, he wants us to see everything about these groups, the good and the bad. We get in close on the action, see these people putting their lives on the line, and we also see them debating among each other about what is the correct way to do what they are doing. We see and hear things that will make us uncomfortable but also make us wonder, is there another way? Do we need to be that savage to stop something as horrible as the cartels? Heineman’s ability to move from brutal scenes to people just talking shows the complexity of what is happening in Mexico and on the border while also keeping us enthralled, wondering what will happen to these people? Will they be killed? But even more so, will they become corrupted?  There is so much temptation with the power they wield just having men and guns. Even more so, there is also a system in place that seems impossible to fight against and you can join and have even greater rewards and less risk to yourself by avoiding the hard fights and simply getting something for yourself .

Letting hope seem like such a lost cause is a hard message to bring and being willing to capture all aspects as well as Heineman has done is a credit to how dedicated he is to letting us see how bad it has gotten. By getting them to talk so openly about what is going on and letting us see people at their worst he cannot help but make us wonder at the gift this man has to let people be so open and let us see everything. He knows it is one thing to hear about the drug cartels but to see how pervasive they have become and how the corruption has spread in ways we haven’t even thought of is a new horror to behold.

Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Matthew Heineman from SIFF 2015.




Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

You can reach Benjamin via email or on twitter

View all posts by this author