The definition of cinéma vérité is “a style of filmmaking characterized by realistic, typically documentary motion pictures that avoid artificiality and artistic effect.” With the Sundance award-winning documentary “Cartel Land,” filmmaker Matthew Heineman certainly embraced that form especially when he found himself in the middle of a dangerous gun battle between a drug cartel and a vigilante group.
The film takes a unique look at the War on Drugs in Mexico from the perspectives of two vigilante groups from different sides of the border. Tim “Nailer” Foley is an American veteran and former drug addict who is the leader of a small tactical group, Arizona Border Recon. Their job is to prevent Mexico’s drug war from spilling over to their side of the border. Meanwhile, Dr. Jose Mireles is a small-town doctor in the Mexican state of Michoacán who heads the Autodefensas, a citizen-formed group that have decided to fight fire with fire against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel.
The portion of the film that focuses on Foley’s group is interesting because they go in with a paramilitary state-of-mind to capture criminals. Having seen stereotypical characters such as Foley and his men portrayed on the silver screen, one would think that there would be a scene in the movie where they take advantage of the immigrants that they have caught. However, it’s safe to say that is not the case in “Cartel Land.”
The Mexican-set portion of the documentary is not only action-packed and violent, but it is also compelling and fascinating because of the man who heads this vigilante group. Mireles is a charismatic character in “Cartel Land” who is hailed as a hero and seeks to inspire some of his fellow citizen to revolt against the oppressive drug cartel. Despite all this, it is later revealed that Mireles isn’t exactly a saint and some of the people he that considered to be loyal may not see eye-to-eye with his goals.
“Cartel Land” is not a preachy or self-righteous documentary about the dangerous war on drugs. As a filmmaker, Matthew Heineman is there to be a fly-on-the-wall and capture some outstanding footage without inserting his own opinions about what he is shooting. Instead, he lets the audience judge whether or not they believe that what Foley and Mierles are doing is right or wrong.
“Cartel Land” is a gritty and unflinching documentary that shows how both the Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas deal with the flow of drugs across the U.S. – Mexico border with their own brand of justice.
“Cartel Land” is now playing at AMC Sunset Place 24.