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REEL SALAZARS 'Cartel Land' Movie Review: When Heroes Turn Into Villains

First Posted: Jul 03, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Cartel Land

Photo : The Orchard

The drug wars have been among the most heated topics of the modern era. While governments bemoan the legal and financial damages that cartels seemingly do, their behavior, or lack of it, has left common citizens in danger of incurring the wrath of these criminals.

The result? As Matthew Heineman's "Cartel Land" shows, the answer is quite complex, filled with the twists of a "narco-novela."

Heineman managed to embed himself in Mexico and within communities along the United States border to study the situation in-depth. The result is finding himself alongside common citizens rising up to take the battle to the drug lords in hopes of liberating themselves from cartel control.

In Arizona, Heineman follows Tim "Nailer" Foley, the leader of the Arizona Border Reacon while in Michoacan, who tells the story of Dr. Jose Mireles and his autodefensas movement.

The double narrative shows how both men put together groups of volunteers to take down the cartel. In Nailer's case, he starts his crusade hoping to get rid of undocumented immigrants before realizing that the cartels are the real enemy. His hope is to end the cartel's human trafficking that has caused great unemployment for working Americans. For Mireles, the stakes revolve around protecting the villages from the rampages they often incur at the hands of the cartel leaders.

The split narrative is a rather promising proposition, seemingly allowing the viewer an opportunity to engage two different points of view on a common issue and how they deal with it differently. The structural decision also proves to be the film's greatest flaw.

As the film unravels, from its opening shots showcasing a meth lab in full function to its rather upsetting twist in the same location, it becomes clear that the Michoacan narrative has a lot more insight on the issue. Nailer spends a great deal of time repeating similar points about his mission and ultimately gets nowhere. The height of his conflict is finding a group of illegal immigrants that he turns in. He has no run-ins with the cartel despite claiming to have them.

Moreover, the viewer never really gets a sense of what his actions are actually doing for his supposed cause. Ultimately, his story takes time away from what is truly captivating about this film -- Dr. Mireles' narrative.

The Michoacan storyline initiates with Mireles starting up the Autodefensa vigilantes with the ideals of taking down the cartels in the local villages and giving the people peace. The narrative shows the Autodefensas slowly growing and in one of the best action sequences in all of cinema in 2015, Heineman shows the militia raid a compound housing two notorious cartel leaders.

However, not all is beautiful for the Autodefensas and as Mireles endures great difficulties, the organization insidiously takes a turn for the worst. Even Mireles, in one of the film's many twists, proves to be a hypocrite and liar.

Those familiar with Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" will undoubtedly remember Harvey Dent's famous "You either die the hero or live long enough to become the villain." This statement applies quite prominently for the Autodefensas with each scene making the viewer slowly question the motives and intentions behind the actions. Characters who we are supposed to endear early on start to take on different complexions. Many characters talk about ending the cycle of violence in this film. If there is anything that this movie seems to indicate, it is that cycles cannot be broken.

"Cartel Land" is not a film for everyone and some of the imagery will weigh heavily on those who brave the experience. One scene takes us into the home of a woman who relates the murder of her husband and her rape at the hands of cartel leaders. The woman, staring blankly at the camera, is a painful image to behold, her inexpressive face revealing the irreversible damage done to her.

It is a damage that, for the time being, looks like it will continue for many innocent people for years and years to come.

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