Matthew Heineman’s slick, troubling documentary, “Cartel Land,” takes place along the US-Mexican border, but it really unfolds in an immense gray area of morality and intent. It’s about vigilantes on both sides of the line, men who have taken the law into their own hands to fight the drug gangs because, as they see it, there is no other law in sight. They believe they’re good men — or they say as much — but the longer we look at them through Heineman’s lens, the harder it is to tell. And the filmmaker, more’s the pity, isn’t asking.
On the American side sits Tim “Nailer” Foley, a grizzled ex-druggie who saw the light after an auto accident and organized the Arizona Border Recon, which initially targeted illegal immigrants in extra-legal border raids, then switched to fighting the drug cartels. “They have more people and more guns,” Foley tells the filmmaker. “We’re David and they’re Goliath.”
A thousand miles away, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, a courtly, white-haired doctor named Jose Manuel Mireles spearheads the Autodefensas, a volunteer militia that travels from town to town, cleaning out gangsters who murder entire families with impunity. Mireles is a charismatic figure and whole villages rally to his side; in one mesmerizing early scene, a Mexican army unit tries to disarm the Autodefensas only to back down in the face of a mob of angry men and women.
Heineman has shot “Cartel Land,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, like a thriller. The images are composed and saturated with colors, the editing shapes scenes for suspense and dramatic impact. At times, it’s as though we’ve traveled through the looking glass and are watching “Breaking Bad” from the real-world side. Yet the filmmaking doesn’t go much beyond its admittedly arresting surface. Is Foley an extremist, as the Southern Law Poverty Center has labeled him? Heineman wants us to decide for ourselves, but he doesn’t give us enough information — no background history, no third-party interviews. A glimpse of Foley’s crew watching “The Sean Hannity Show” doesn’t cut it.
Anyway, “Cartel Land” spends most of its running time with Mireles and the Autodefensas, if for no other reason than that they’re the better story. The more we learn of the good doctor, the more problematic he seems; a big ego and a weakness for young women turn out to be the least of his flaws. The movie charts the rise and fall of his movement and implies that while Mireles may be corrupt, the government and armed forces are more corrupt, so he’s still some kind of folk hero.
Even if it leaves you wanting more, “Cartel Land” deserves to be seen. It puts human faces and motives on an issue we tend to think about in the abstract or as a source of horrific headlines; the real heroes of this movie are the men and women trying to live normal lives in the midst of blood-soaked anarchy. For all that, there’s a bass note of futility that runs beneath Heineman’s documentary and it surfaces with a vengeance at the very end, when we learn that some of Mireles’s Autodefensas are simultaneously engaged with the drug trade. Why not play both sides, they seem to ask. How else is one to live in a world that civilization has abandoned?
That sense of hopelessness infects the film and may possibly have unmanned its maker. Behind the cool, nonjudgmental gaze of “Cartel Land” is a despair that never comes to terms with itself.
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Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.