In the dead of night, a group of bandanna-sporting men heave barrels out of a moving truck and lug them across the desert. With only the light of the camera’s flashbulb, they transmute liquid into solid as smoke from the reaction billows across the screen. They’re modern alchemists, working in silence and secrecy—but fully aware that the gold they’re producing will ultimately bring them prosperity at the expense of others. One man speaks for the group; we know what we’re doing is wrong, he says, but what else can we do?
Welcome to Cartel Land, a world that feels abandoned by governance, security, and—at times—basic human decency. The world that director Heineman depicts is rocky and barren, one where groups of armed thugs can gain control not only of the drug trade but of people’s sense of hope and will to live. In an early interview, a woman recounts fifteen names—mostly children and elderly—who were killed by the Knights Templar cartel in a single attack. Their crime? Going about their job: lime pickers for a grower who refused to pay the cartel protection money.
As the harrowing crimes of the cartel begin to mount, a resistance begins to form. An unlikely hero arises in Manuel Mireles: a doctor sporting a cowboy hat and Sam Elliott mustache who encourages his fellow townspeople to take up arms against the cartel. He’s a jovial fellow, one seen joking with the children at his clinic, but he speaks at town square meetings with a kind of ferocity not seen in modern orators. He’s plainspoken—oftentimes his speeches last only a few sentences—but his voice is clear: if we don’t do something about it, who will?
Across the border, in Arizona, those words are echoed by a militiamen group spearheaded by a former construction worker, claiming that “illegals” took his job and forced him to roam the country. They extoll a sense of heroism about their perceived vigilantism, believing themselves to be protecting the borders from the gravest threat ever to America—and yet, with the same breath, speak in both cloaked and naked racism that belies the true mission of their cause. They patrol day in and day out but rarely seem to actually accomplish anything other than being boys playing army. Compared to Mireles and his group of autodefensas, they seem woefully ignorant and awfully silly.
It’s this half of the film that keeps Cartel Land from being a truly engaging and interesting piece of cinema. While Mireles and the autodefensas provide not only a thrilling story but a wonderful undercurrent of corruption, the sequences with the Arizona group stall the film dead in its tracks. There’s little to no growth whatsoever in the group, be it ideologically or even narratively. Every person within the group starts the same and ends the same. There are no thrilling revelations. There aren’t even any good parallels with the autodefensas, other than both groups being ostensibly vigilantes—and, maybe, that one group actually takes action while the other sits around, smokes cigarrettes, and complains about “damn illegal motherfuckers”.
Which is a shame, given that the movie that could have been made without these parts would have given most fiction films a run for their money in terms of excitement. There’s betrayal, suspense, chaotic shootouts, and themes of the ultimate fallibility of movements that started with the brightest intentions. When we finally learn the truth about Dr. Mireles—and see the other, uglier truths about those in the autodefensas movement—it’s a heartbreaker, a bomb going off. We can’t believe that we once rooted for these men, believed in them, held our breath as they raided cartel houses and fought back against their oppressors. We’re disgusted, squirming in our seats as our heroes are ripped away from us right at their finest hour.
And then we’re back in Arizona, subjected to yet another helicopter shot of fields, as the director finds a way to squander his best moments once again.