Cartel Land

Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

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