Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land is nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary and although it is a decent film, calling it one of 2015’s best is a bit of a stretch. The film focuses on the drug war waging on the US and Mexico border and looks at the the brave souls on the American side who try to keep the drugs and criminals out. While also focusing on the brave souls in Mexico who try to protect their own villages and families from the poison in their own country. While Heineman has made the wise choice not to have a voice over narrator, but to simply let each side tell its own story, the film suffers from a lack of good editing and as a result the pacing is scattershot.
Cartel Land comes on the heels of Sicario, the fictional account of the ongoing drug war on our borders. Sicario is a standout film that was compelling, electrifying and knew exactly what it wanted to say about the drug war; agree or disagree. Cartel Land hedges its bets and by the end of the film I did not know anything more about the drug culture than when I started the film. Yes, the stories on both sides are told in an effective manner, but the film makes no judgments or raises any questions that stimulate the viewer to form an opinion. We simply get a lot of long shots of people walking and stopping to look through binoculars, on the American side. The film then cuts to Mexico where the local militia’s battle not only the cartels, but people who don’t trust the militia’s.
The milita’s or the Autodefensas are the last line of defense against the cartels or The Knights Templar as they are referred to. These “Knights” are butchers from the lowest gutters. They kill men, women and children of all ages and the Knights do not discriminate. The Autodefensas are led by “El Doctor” or Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde. He is a compassionate man but he is attacked on all sides by either the cartels or the corrupt government troops who are mostly in the pocket of the cartels. Having seen Sicario and then Cartel Land, I did understand what is at stake, but then again, don’t we all?
Heineman does a decent job of contrasting the two sides and Matt Porwell’s cinematography is stunning as it captures the beauty of lands and their peoples. H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg’s score is particularly effective and keeps the film moving to a certain degree, but overall the film tends to drag and not much new information is ever divulged. What I was left with was an empty feeling of having not seen anything I have not seen before. Pretty much what you think you are going to get from Cartel Land s what you will get and not much else. As for its nomination, Electric Boogaloo is a far better choice for the category of Best Documentary. Cartel Land is not without merit, is worth checking out and I am going to recommend it but with reservations. Check out Amy (the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse) or Electric Boogaloo (the rise and fall of Cannon Films), first. Amy has been nominated but Electric Boogaloo, sadly has not. Cartel Land is a well meaning and thoughtful documentary, but not up to the caliber of others in the same category.
Cartel Land-*** out of 5
Cartel Land- Rated R for violence and language
Cartel Land- Run Time is 100 minutes
Cartel Land is playing is a few cities around the country in time for the Academy Awards, but is also available On Demand, DVD and on Netflix with your paid subscription for that service.