Film Analysis – Land of Wolves (2015)
When I was seventeen, I traveled to Mazatlan, Mexico, for spring break in March of 1998. This wasn’t a quick plane ride with two hundred hormonal college kids to a weeklong boozefest on the beach; rather, I went with a friend and her boyfriend, two younger brothers, mother, and an aunt on a road trip that inched diagonally across Mexico from our hometown in deep south Texas to the resort city on the west coast of Sinaloa state. It took us three days to drive there because we took our time enjoying the countryside: celebrating the anniversary of the town of Parras with an all-night fiesta, staying at a hotel on a ranch and eating sopapillas for breakfast in Saltillo, buying homemade fruit candies at a shop before cautiously creeping across the Devil’s Backbone of the western Sierra Madres. The altitude and steep cliffs of the Backbone made my friend nauseous and the van screeched over to a rare clearing on the side of the narrow two-lane mountain road so she could hang over the side of the low stone guardrail. Below us, the mountain dropped hundreds of feet to a valley; behind us, moving vans and sports cars dashed around the curves at a speed way too dangerous for our touristy sensibilities. On the road again, we continued inching west.
By the third day, we were so tired of the mountains and had begun to peck at each other out of boredom and annoyance when the city appeared as we rounded a pass, just after midday. I remember the light dancing on the water and the colors of the buildings: sea green and ivory and reddish-pink. The first thing we did, even before checking into the hotel, was find a meat market to buy food; amidst the sharp metallic odor of blood, I tried to breathe through my mouth as we walked deeper into the warehouse, passing stalls of cabezas de vaca, wide beef shanks hanging from hooks, and rotating spits of trompo from which pieces were shaved off into tacos for us to eat while we walked. For three days, we swam, ate corn tortillas with queso blanco and lime juice, danced in the discotecas, and sunned ourselves on the black volcanic sand (which was so soft it just fell off the skin, unlike the sticky beige sand on South Padre). When we finally drove back home to Texas, we took a speedier, more direct route using the private toll roads, which were safer.
My parents never felt extraordinarily nervous about letting their teenage daughter travel cross-country to the Mexican west coast. My father was born on a farm seven miles from the border; my mother had regularly eaten lunch and shopped in the border town of Progreso since the 1970s. I was going with people who had family and history in that country, so they never gave it a second thought. Had my youngest brother asked to go on the same kind of trip when he was seventeen which was in 2009, their attitude would have been completely different. The influence from the cartels had reached the Mexican border towns like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros to a degree that many people just across the Rio Grande River in McAllen, Mission, and Harlingen feared crossing even to visit relatives. After a few years, things toned down enough that colleagues and friends began tiptoeing back across, but their behavior is still guarded and travel procedures are set in stone.
After watching the documentary Cartel Land in the summer and the feature Sicario this past week, the most shocking thing about these films was how little shocked I was at the events they depicted, nor the cycle of violence that seems interminable. One thing I did recognize was how closely the United States and Mexico are intertwined, in legal aspects of our economies and otherwise, and how ignorant many citizens are of those ties. For most of 2014, it was hard to get limes in south Texas restaurants. It is customary for local restaurants in the Rio Grande Valley to serve lime rather than lemon in iced tea (we’re not Houston) and squeeze its juices over everything from pico de gallo to ceviche to caldo tlapeño, so losing a prized condiment was clearly noticeable when a bowl of yellow lemon slices arrived on the table. Such a tiny, bothersome detail that moves to the forefront of your memories as you watch one of the earliest scenes in Cartel Land showing a funeral held in the Mexican state of Michoacan for the thirteen lime pickers who were killed because their boss couldn’t pay the cartel who controlled the trade.
Both Cartel Land and Sicario are about vigilantism against the cartels, either in response to or with support of a government. The former involves the separate missions of two men, Mexican doctor Jose Manuel Mireles and American veteran Tim Foley, to fight the encroachment of drug cartels into their homelands (specifically, Michoacan and Arizona). The latter is a fictionalized crime drama about the government groups who work in the shadows in an unending hunt for the leaders in the drug trade.
In Cartel Land, our perspective is from the ground, as these are grass-roots efforts. Director Matthew Heineman was able to follow everyone from meth cookers out in the mesquite to the citizen groups trying to take back their communities from the brutality of the cartels and corruption of the government. Heineman then returns to Arizona to follow Foley and his group as they survey the hillsides for cartel scouts, mules, or undocumented Mexican nationals. Sitting around the campfire or at outdoor cafe tables with these two men, the director develops an atmosphere of trust and openness, almost like a confessional, as Mireles confesses his ever-present fear of the risk he is placing himself and his family and the pressures of leading and managing his citizen group, the Autodefensas. A tall, lanky man, Mireles’s shoulders are stooped, the deep creases around his eyes indicative of little sleep and long days. Everything is incessant in his work: speaking at town meetings, recruiting volunteers, researching cartel activity in the next town over, dealing with his own personnel. The hardest part of his job is convincing citizens to be visible and active against a force that publicly and mercilessly punishes those who protest. In response, Dr. Mireles walks the streets before and after his speeches and runs his medical clinics in plain sight.
Foley’s group, the Arizona Border Recon, also wrestles with differing perceptions and maintaining a solid presence when the job is voluntary, the environment is unforgiving, and the costs are high. They patrol the Altar Valley of his state that borders the Mexican state of Sonora, known for heavy cocaine smuggling. With his leathery skin and ice-blue eyes, Foley believes his and other vigilante groups are given a bad name by the media, and acknowledges the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled ABR an “extremist hate group,” but he likens the increasing tension and violence along the border to a new Wild West, where such groups are necessary to maintain order. It isn’t long before we see the ties to the drug world that impact Foley to this day. A former meth addict who has maintained sobriety for almost two decades, he formed ABR in 2008 after losing his job and home and seeing increased employment of “illegals” compounded with a perceived inaction of the U.S. government towards the border states. As with Mireles, he is working with volunteers, not all of whom are on the exact wavelength when it comes to their motives and opinions. As one of the ABR members insists, “You can’t put two races in the same nation and expect them to get along.”
Sicario means “hitman” in Spanish. The word, and the film, suggests distance and camouflage, in both the literal and figurative sense. The story deals with figures involved with the U.S.-Mexico drug wars, and the increasingly gray area of truth, trust, and morality. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) heads a kidnapping response team for the FBI when she is recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to “volunteer” for an “interagency task force” after a botched raid on a suspected stash house results in several team members killed and thirty-five bodies discovered buried in the house’s walls. Immediately, Kate is in a position of vulnerability that has nothing to do with her intelligence, skill with weaponry, or intuition, all of which she demonstrates aplenty. Rather, she is extremely naive when it comes to the reality of the drug wars to which her job is so closely connected. In a way, Kate represents Americans outside the border states. When she gets frustrated over the abandonment of protocol or argues over a change in game plan, the other task force members brush her aside like an errant child – until she gets too loud and bothersome. When Blunt’s British accent is allowed to slip a few times (not enough to be distracting but noticeable when she gets angry), it only exacerbates how removed her character is from the events happening around her.
As opposed to Cartel Land, Sicario director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins amp the anxiety and atmosphere of surveillance through a God’s eye view of the countryside, a city, or even a character. Thanks to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pulsating, haunting score, every overhead or aerial shot of a private jet flying over the Sierra Nevada steppe dotted with creosote bushes or descending over the low buildings of Ciudad Juarez peppered below Bible Hill brings the task force deeper into the den of the beast. Across the film, characters are either on the hunt or being hunted; those that survive have honed their senses to detect which side of the chase they are on at a given time. Coyotes, mules, pollos, thumpers, wolves: all terms for individuals within the hunt. The different men who aid or volunteer for the task force are U.S. Marshals, DEA, Marines recently back from Afghanistan, and independent “consultants,” all with their own agendas, all loosely connected.
The vastness of the operation on both sides is evident: roads where there aren’t roads, trails that can only be seen with trained eyes, and tunnels burrowed out of the desert earth. The tension only heightens as the overhead shots become narrower, first on wide swaths of land, then from a bank security camera focused on Kate. Everything is being watched – we just don’t know who lurks in the shadows. When Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a former prosecutor in Juarez and now “advisor” to the Department of Defense who is with the task force, tells Kate “nothing will make sense to your American ears; you will doubt everything we do,” he is referring to the false sense of security and faith she has in the legal, prosecutable side of the war with no clear border, only boundaries that are constantly moved. As in Cartel Land, there is a blur between visibility and camouflage as the Mexican federal police who escort the task force through Juarez lead a large entourage of pickup trucks and SUVs with blaring sirens, though their faces are masked. The Americans adopt different postures, their language is coded, and their reactions are heightened. As highlighted in the film’s most intense scene in the bottleneck that forms at the border checkpoint going back into Texas, there is what is seen, what is unseen, and what is chosen to be ignored. Kate wants things done by the book, unaware that this is not a linear operation with a beginning and end point, but a constant push and pull of diversions and traps, predators and quarries. “Are you feeling that on the street?” Matt asks Kate, “Getting the vibe that we’re winning?”
As of the summer of 2015, the lime shortage appears to be over. Waiters in Valley restaurants don’t hesitate when patrons ask for more. The citrus business is running smoothly for now. According to an August 2014 article in the Global Post, Mexico saw its 2013 tourism rates finally surpass 2008 levels, and the first half of 2014 saw a twenty-percent rise in total number of tourists over the previous year. However, sunning next to Jennifer Aniston at a posh resort in Los Cabos isn’t the same as visiting family at a town just over the Rio Grande. I recently asked a friend whose parents live just over the border to describe how her travel routine between the countries has changed since 2009. The drill begins the moment the toll is paid on the U.S. side, when all valuables in the car are hidden and conversation stops, even among her children in the backseat. No cell phones, no jewelry, no iPads – nothing that could catch the sunlight and reflect out of the vehicle, drawing unwanted attention, are visible. Everyone is trained to be silent and watchful of the other cars and people selling gum or other items on the street. When returning to Texas, if they need to take a safer route back back to the checkpoint, their relatives will lead them in a separate car. They get to the bridge as quickly as possible, and as soon as they get a signal on their cell phones, she texts their family back in Mexico that they are safe.
Once across, she said, “We can finally breathe.”