Thursday, February 11, 2016

Matthew Heineman's multi-award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary, CARTEL LAND

TrustMovies is not certain why, but there does seem to be a hex on making an acceptable film about what some people call the "drug wars" and the country of Mexico -- whether that film be a narrative (like Oliver Stone's crass, slick and sleazy violence-porn Savages, Ridley Scott's ludicrously pretentious The Counselor, or the Denis Villeneuve's more recent starts-out-well-then-turns-ridiculous Sicario) or documentaries from Bernardo Ruiz's limited-in-scope and somewhat shallow Kingdom of Shadows to the film under consideration here: CARTEL LAND. Is this because the subject is simply too awful, crazy, ugly, impossibly huge and hydra-headed to even begin to pin down? Or perhaps it is due more to the fact that so much dishonesty, venality and betrayal is embedded here that any film tackling the subject runs the risk of embroiling itself in the very culture it depicts.

Whatever, this latest drug cartel documentary via director Matthew Heineman (shown at left), which has found its way into the five films nominated for Best Documentary "Oscar," though one of the better examples TrustMovies has encountered in all of these docs and narratives, still ends up making one question what has been left out of the movie as much as what is actually in it. The film blends two narrative strands, one of which involves an American-set group of para-military vigilantes who say they are trying to stop this violent Mexican drug war culture from entering our country (hello: It has been here for decades now) and is much less interesting and important than the second strand.

That would be the tale of a "noble," small-town Mexican doctor, José Mireles (shown above), who appears to have determined to rid the area surrounding his town of Michoacán of these drug lords and their crews. Why this is so necessary is explained early on, as townfolk tell of the slaughter of a particular family of fruit-pickers. We do not see this but only hear of it, but the telling is particularly horrible. (It was enough to prevent a good friend of mine from even continuing with the film.)

To achieve this riddance Mireles organizes a group of vigilantes who become surprisingly successful in their task. The police and elected officials, corrupt as ever, not only offer no help but actively try to dissuade these "Autodefensas" from bearing down on the particular drug cartel involved in the Michoacán area. So far so good. But when an accident involving a plane crash derails Mireles, and the good doctor turns over the running of the Autodefensas to a cute little gnome-like fellow known as Papa Smurf, things begin to fall apart.

How and why we see glimpses of,  and this is enough to make us question the reliability of just about everyone involved -- including the filmmaker. Director Heineman managed to get enormous access to Mireles and his Autodefensas, so much so that we finally discover things about this good doctor and loving family man that begin to call into question quite a lot. As usual, it appears that power corrupts, and the more powerful a man or group becomes, likewise the more corruptible.

Given what Heineman has chosen to show and tell us, we can't help but wonder what more damning tidbits he may have left out. Clearly, Mireles had control over what he allowed the director to see, hear, and maybe report on, so we wonder why we're discovering certain things but not some others. Ah, it's a conundrum, and the question of who is betraying who consistently crops up.

As for the American set of vigilantes, early on its leader explains that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled his group "extremists" -- and than proceeds to unintentionally explain why this is true. While it is clear that the filmmaker wanted to show us vigilantes on both sides of the borders, it seemed to me that those on the American side were much less interesting or productive (but perhaps more trustworthy?) that those to the south.

As usual with these drug movies, any kind of understandable truth proves so elusive that the viewer's patience eventually wears thin. That's the point, I guess. Of course, "truth" is always problematic. But where Mexico, America and the drug cartels are concerned, it is so multi-layered and out of reach as to seem non-existent. And that, dear reader/viewer, is fucking depressing.

Cartel Land, distributed theatrically by The Orchard and running 100 minutes, is available for streaming now via Netflix and elsewhere. 

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