The Oscar-nominated Cartel Land functions as a double-portrait of vigilante groups determined to combat violent drug cartels on both sides of the US-Mexico border, with gung-ho director Matthew Heineman risking life and limb while embedding himself in this dangerous milieu. The characters Heineman meets and the stories he unearths are truly extraordinary and should, I would hope, generate a great deal of discussion.
It’s never a bad time to talk about the numerous problems stemming from this extremely fraught frontier, and recent years have seen a surge of films, television series and literature, both fiction and non-fiction (Sicario, The Bridge, Tom Wainwright’s new book Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, et al), exploring the lives of those perpetrating or affected by violent criminal activities which take advantage of the border’s porousness. However limited their individual points of view, I’m glad such stories exist in relative abundance. My concern has to do with the kind of border stories we’re telling and consuming—especially while Donald Trump trumpets his fascist fear-mongering. If only we had as much exposure to more Mexican narratives about the border problems—and there are many, on film, in song and in print, waiting to be distributed or published in translation.
To be sure, Cartel Land shows us things we haven’t seen before, and its last act contains startling revelations. But the film is also pretty tacky in its numbingly high-octane presentation, using hysterical news report sound-bites, excessive and corny dramatic scoring, and interviews in which subjects tearfully stare right down the barrel of Heineman’s camera. Above all, Cartel Land lacks context. It’s champing at the bit to get into the murk, but it doesn’t ask enough questions. It cuts straight to the juicy bits without betraying a lot of curiosity regarding how those bits came to be. In one of the arresting opening scenes of Cartel Land a Mexican meth-cooker defends his trade by asking Heineman, “What do you expect? We come from poverty.” That should be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.
Thu, Feb 25 – Tue, Mar 1
Directed by Matthew Heineman
Metro Cinema at the Garneau