This film about the drug trade on the Mexican/American border is up for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. Heineman’s style as a director is best summed up by Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote, “he has a crucial attribute that’s very helpful for documentary filmmakers – he is apparently out of his freakin’ mind.” Heineman (and co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll ... it’s not clear who does what) appears to be taking enormous risks during the filming of Cartel Land, jumping into cars to avoid gunfire, conducting interviews with people who seem, at best, less than savory. Heineman doesn’t shy away from reminding us of this ... in one interview, he notes, “A lot of the more intense scenes, I was there alone during the shootouts and scenes like that and it was almost like every man for themselves. I was there looking out for my own back and taking care of myself and they were doing the same.” But in fairness, Cartel Land is not a movie about a brave and reckless director.
Heineman uses an interesting structural device, following two vigilante leaders, one on each side of the border. Tim “Nailer” Foley patrols that border, trying to keep the bad guys out of Arizona; José Mireles is a leader of a band of Mexicans trying to fight back against the power of the cartels in their towns. The structure is fine, but this is a movie, and it soon becomes apparent that Mireles has more charisma and screen presence than his American counterpart. This subtly throws off the so-called objective balance ... whenever we watch “Nailer”, we wish we were back in Mexico with Mireles.
The story of Mireles also seems more complicated than that of Foley, with most of the surprises coming when Mireles is the focus. Heineman doesn’t create psuedo-events, but he knows how to take advantage of turns in the narrative that would work equally well in a fictional film.
The immediacy of the filmmaking gives Cartel Land much of its power. But there is precious little context for what we see, which is partly why the reveals of the latter part of the picture work ... they really are surprising. But it feels a bit dishonest.
Heineman has said he was inspired by The Square, another Oscar-nominated documentary. But The Square is a great movie, the kind that inspires other filmmakers. Cartel Land is a good movie that leaves you hungry for more. 7/10.