Review: ‘Cartel Land’ Airs Monday Night On A&E

Review by Tom Swift

The Sundance heralded film Cartel Land portrays vigilantism as a way to shoot yourself in the head. A documentary somehow shot with the hyper realism and cringing excitement of a big budget action film, Cartel Land paints a bleak picture of the consequences of the crystal meth trade—as seen from both sides of the American / Mexican border.

It’s theme of righteous anger turning into action packed futility echoes the inscription above the gate to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” And as the Roman writer Virgil introduces us to that hell, here we have an American vigilante working to stop the drug trade from Mexico, and a Mexican doctor working to stop the drug trade from continuing to tear his country apart with rampant violence. Both leaders stoically seem to accept that they are old enough to die with their boots on. And in that attitude there is a healthy dose of John Wayne’s later films.

A third, much younger voice offered by a Mexican meth cooker doing his dirty work deep in the desert, opens and closes the film with a bleak message that everything is corrupt. He’s wearing an official, Mexican government uniform. The boiling meth smoke invokes the cliché that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” It’s as if the whole world is burning around this soothsaying meth cooker.

The vigilante American border patrols led by Tim “Nailer” Foley are the secondary level of the film. The dominant focus is on the Mexican state of Michoacan that is far from the American border. There Dr.Jose Mireles is so fed up that he won’t take the rampant gangersterism anymore. He organizes a citizens’ militia called Autodefensas – complete with national TV coverage.

Ralllying the Mexican townsfolk whose lives have been consumed by cartel violence, the Mireles led Autodefensas take back town after town — through one nail biting gun battle after another gun battle. The government’s underhanded support of the cartels leads to an offer to legitimize the militias in order to co-opt them. Then the doctor’s plane mysteriously crashes and he’s hospitalized. His underlings take over and lead the movement into criminality and compromise. Dr. Mireles closes the film in jail on gun charges – seen through smoke, locked behind bars.

As the film ends on the American side, the vigilantes seem to be on a roll as they have enough members to at least shut down some of the routes used by the cartels. There is no sense of victory, however, as the vastness of the desert exposes the vigilantes to a bullet from anywhere.

A pervasive sense of violence keeps you always on the edge of your seat. You might find yourself wishing this were just fiction and that you could just enjoy the post-Apocalyptic fun.

Director Matthew Heineman takes you along for this hellish ride. With his camera everywhere, you’ll ride through the street battles – maybe you’ll even find yourself ducking from a bullet in the head.

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