Cartel Land (2015)
A group of masked men are cooking meth in a desert in the middle of nowhere. “We sell our drugs all over the U.S.,” one man says, “and we’ll make more tomorrow.” “Ours is the best quality and we have the most quantity. We know that it does not do good, but what are we supposed to do?” No, this is not an episode of Breaking Bad; this is a documentary. This is real.
The new documentary Cartel Land, produced and directed by Matthew Heineman, gives us an up-close, in-depth, and sometimes much-too-intimate look at the murderous Mexican drug cartels from both sides of the border. On the American side of the border, we have former American military veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley, who has started a paramilitary group to police the border. On the Mexican side, the film follows a small-town physician known as “El Doctor,” leader of a group called the Autodefensas, a citizen group that is fighting against their local cartel.
As the film begins, we may have certain assumptions about both of these men based on their own comments, our own political stands, and the preponderance of news coverage surrounding such characters. Nailer lost his construction job to illegal immigrants, became a drug abuser, and then found refuge in policing the border on his own. Gruff, honest, and (perhaps) racist, Nailer leads the film into the very heart of the battle. “Technically, we’re vigilantes upholding the law where there is no law,” he says “but the phrase ‘vigilante’ has been given a bad name by the media.” On the other side of the border, “El Doctor” is smoother, more charismatic, and much more diplomatic in his own quest to fight the cartels. But our initial assumptions may change.
Documentaries work best when they arrange themselves much like a fictional story may. This is one such powerful film that is beautifully shot, wonderfully edited, and serves as a textbook in fiery documentary filmmaking—the art of which has increased so dramatically in the past few decades that documentaries are sometimes nominated in Best Picture categories at film festivals and awards ceremonies. I have no doubt this film will be in heavy rotation as the awards season heats up later this year. Don’t miss it on the big screen.
Starts at the Chez Artiste on July 10.
You will enjoy this film if you liked The Cove, The Thin Blue Line, and/or Last Days in Vietnam.
A Netflix Original Series
This is a slight departure from my typical review, but I think it merits notice. The recent spate of cable TV series that have gone beyond the limiting confines of traditional broadcast TV shows continue to improve. Shows such as Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead have moved TV in a new direction, shows I call “cinematic TV.” Perhaps one of the best is the Netflix original series Daredevil. Finally, we get a superhero that is not remotely appropriate for our children. And that is a good thing.
The recent glut of superhero iterations have all been missing one thing that Daredevil delivers: an edge. Based on one of the more interesting and complicated Marvel characters, the Daredevil was blinded as a young boy but was taught how to use his other, heightened senses to his advantage. He grows to become a lawyer, shunning a corporate job for a fledgling private practice with a close friend. By day. By night, he is a masked vigilante, helping the people of his home turf, Hell’s Kitchen in NYC.
We’ve heard, read, and seen this before. What changes here is the style: this is brutal, violent, film noir that is closer to Tarantino than Ironman. The visuals promote the dark, dirty, and shadowy above the clean and pretty. There are no high-tech bat-caves or labs with super-geniuses; here we see dank apartments, alleys, and streets that are more Taxi Driver than Spider-Man. And most of all, blood: people get hit, they break bones, they suffer, and they bleed.
TV veteran Vincent D’Onofrio brilliantly plays the villain in the first season. He is not your ordinary, crazed baddie. He is smart, sophisticated, and enjoys postmodern art and opera. He is the gentlemanly villain of Hitchcock and not a maniac. Except of course, when he brutally kills a man with his bare hands, severing the head off the man’s body. And that unexpected brutality and real violence is just what makes this show special—it dares to go places few shows have gone.
Season one is on Netflix now. Let the binge begin!
You will like this series if you enjoyed Reservoir Dogs, Taxi Driver, and/or Breaking Bad.
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., teaches Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.