Review: “Cartel Land” (***½)

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Meth lab in Michoacán, Mexico

“Breaking Bad” meets “The Hurt Locker” in “Cartel Land,” Director Matthew Heineman’s investigative documentary about two vigilante forces and their common enemy: the Mexican drug cartels. Stateside we have Tim “Nailer” Foley, head of the Arizona Border Recon, armed and ready to stop the drug war from crossing the border into Altar Valley. In Michoacán, Mexico, Dr. Jose “El Doctor” Mireles leads the Autodefensas—a citizen militia determined to dethrone the Knight Templars, a ruthless cartel that terrorizes the community.

Autodefensas in Michoacán

Heineman directed, produced, edited, and filmed “Cartel Land.” He embedded himself with Foley and Mireles for over a year to gain the trust needed to access the remarkable transparency his exposé achieves. Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar-winning Director of “The Hurt Locker” itself, is Executive Producer. Her involvement is top-billed, understandably, but it’s Heineman’s Emmy nomination that waits to greet you. Produced by A&E Indie Films and Heineman’s own Our Time Projects, “Cartel Land” smacks loudly of a courageous, hard-hitting, ninety-minute A&E television special. Granted, the time-lapsed landscapes and night vision lighting are beautiful and effective respectively, but I never shook the feeling that I might not have started a movie after all. Lest I remain confused, this precarious verité—its merit as fluid as the morality it examines—did win Best Director and Best Cinematography in the US Documentary category at Sundance in 2015.

Tim “Nailer” Foley in “Cartel Land”

The small screen/big screen identity crisis overflows from style into character development; once we meet the Autodefensas, Tim Foley is hard to take seriously. The former are fraught with tragic stories of murdered children and beheaded uncles. Their fight against the Templars is one for survival. Foley, on the other hand, took a stand once his post-rehab construction jobs became too hard to find. He speaks next to no Spanish and recruits men who make cringe-worthy racist remarks. Heineman opens with Foley’s story but smartly focuses on Mireles’, reassuring us he prefers ticket sales to Nielsen ratings.

“Cartel Land” is as pointed as its title and as unnerving as its final twist. Heineman has a clear voice and the guts required to amplify it, but the scope of his style will do well to catch up to the scope of his production team. His eye for the truth is one worth seeing through, and this story commands anticipation for projects to come. 
3.5 out of 5 stars.

“Cartel Land” opens in Atlanta tomorrow, July 17th, at United Artists Tara Cinemas. 
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