Cartel Land (The Orchard, R)

Cartel-Land 75I can’t immediately think of its equal in terms of compelling, on-the-ground footage of how drug cartels operate.





Cartel-Land 500

Matthew Heineman’s film Cartel Land is one of those films that is at once so great that it feels ridiculous to criticize it, but also so conspicuously flawed that any reviewer that gives it a total pass is automatically somewhat suspect. It achieves this by telling two stories—one has Heineman embedded in the Mexican state Michoacán, working with the cartel buster Dr. Jose Mireles, and the other has Heineman in Arizona’s Altar Valley following a dude who calls himself Nailer and runs a paramilitary group that fights border crossers. The stuff from Michoacán is really riveting, incredible stuff, and the Arizona side feels like ill-considered filler at best, and boring and stupid at worst.

Cartel Land won both the Directing Award and the Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the documentary competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and was one of the more talked about movies about six weeks later when it played the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. It’s a hard film to not talk and think a lot about, but all of this is on account of Dr. Mireles and the movement towards grassroots cartel fighting depicted in Michoacán, which burns itself into your memory with the often very intense footage Heineman, who shot most of this film himself, captured.

One can see why he might have made the artistic choice of also including the Arizona side of the story, as there’s some precedent in trying to show Big Picture Drug Trade from multiple angles, perhaps most notably in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 fiction film Traffic. But it seems like somewhere in the editing phase Heineman and his three other credits editors would have noticed that there’s a huge imbalance in quality between the two sections of the film, and instead just focused on the Michoacán side. For the most part this is what they do, as Michoacán takes up the majority of the film’s 98 minute runtime, but really none of the Arizona footage works, nor justifies its presence in the film. Besides, Michoacán is closer to the southern side of Mexico in the first place—exactly how relevant is the border patrol in Arizona, anyway?

What this all leaves is a pretty great but also somewhat frustrating film. Coming out of the movie and in your long term memory you’ll mostly remember the film’s positive traits, and you’d be right to do so, as I can’t immediately think of its equal in terms of compelling, on-the-ground footage of how drug cartels operate. All the same, it’s hard not to wish the movie were just a little bit tighter. | Pete Timmermann

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