|'A blockbuster Documentary. Seeks out action as much as revelation, grandstanding as much as insight'|
Cartel Land is presented as a blockbuster Documentary. Director Matthew Heineman seeks out action as much as revelation, grandstanding as much as insight. It's an interesting approach to the incendiary and already blockbuster-leaning world of Mexican drug cartels, but it does leave the director open to questions around whether he manages to discover anything of note.
Drug dealers, it seems, are primarily bad. Where Cartel Land finds shade, if it has any, is in the worlds of those supposedly policing them. Jose Manuel Mireles, who emerges as one of the primary subjects of the film, is the doctor who founded the Autodefensas, a paramilitary force dedicated to stopping the cartels. But are they all that they seem? Rumours of violence and looting from the civilian resistance persist and Heineman catches Mireles behaving incredibly similarly to the cartel leaders of fiction, even stopping off for a bit of nookie with a beauty queen at one point, whilst on the run from pursuers generally unknown.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, a reformed drifter called Nailer dresses up in camo gear and leads a similarly-minded group of ragtag US 'patriots' on patrols to round up immigrants and drug mules. You can imagine Nailer and his gang are the type of people who turn up at paintball ranges with their own guns and body armour, only this is the US so they carry their own automatic weapons and radio systems. Their little militia is at least as scary as Mireles' new form of cartel, though thankfully it does seem contained in the Arizona hills.
If Heineman does find something out about the groups that he looks at, it's to do with the notion of escalation and the difficulty inherent in tackling complex problems that appear simple. Organising against the drug cartels should be easy, but human nature creeps in and Mireles' group is corrupted. Similarly, there's something slightly sinister about Nailer and his assault rifles, his desire to protect his country against groups of 'invaders' looking for a better life.
The problem with Cartel Land persists however that, despite the footage the director captures, the questions and insight are rarely here: this is a Documentary as made and shot in the style of Kathryn Bigelow (who executive produces), rather than Alex Gibney. Heineman doesn't get to Nailer's motivations (he seems to avoid questions about what the American thinks of Mexicans and, to a point, what he does with those he captures and encounters in the hills) and presents Mireles as character, rather than subject. It's entertaining, but it's also OK to expect Documentary to be more than that.