'Cartel Land' (R)

Long before a charismatic Mexican vigilante leader’s wife notes that her husband wields the persuasive charm “all the best movie characters have,” the documentary Cartel Land has delivered the narrative propulsion and satisfaction of a first-rate fiction thriller.

This is run-and-gun filmmaking of unusual, paradoxical visual sophistication, braking right at the edge of slickness. Matthew Heineman’s film grabs you in the opening minutes as he films a quiet, purposeful group of meth cookers cloaked in darkness, their mouths covered by kerchiefs. “We come from poverty,” one says. “But if we start paying attention to our hearts, then we’ll get screwed over.” Theirs is one piece of a massive, corrupt economic puzzle. And these are human beings, not monsters.

Cartel Land proceeds on a two-track narrative line. On the U.S. side of the border, in the Altar Valley of Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of self-named Arizona Border Recon vigilantes. A former meth user, Foley, rarely without his rifle, sets his sights on the apprehension of undocumented border crossers. He speaks, bitterly, of his war on crime in David versus Goliath terms, the Goliath being the Mexican drug cartels whose tentacles reach a long, bloody way north from Mexico.

A thousand miles south, in Michoacan, Cartel Land tells its other primary story, that of Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. In this region, the ruthless Knights Templar cartel conducts a reign of terror, beheadings and mass slaughter of innocent citizens. In 2013, Mireles spearheaded a rebellion and formed an armed paramilitary group working outside the government, outside the cartels, striking back at the cartel lackeys when and where they could. Foley and Mireles never meet in Cartel Land, but they’re weirdly simpatico, leading characters in an expansive real-life drama.

Cartel Land crackles with filmmaking savvy, letting out its narrative developments and character details in crafty increments. Heineman’s access was truly startling; we see some pretty awful behavior, along with dead bodies. Mireles, beloved by many as a savior, is not what he appears to be, entirely. Cartel Land has its moments of simplification, but by the end of Heineman’s rattling 98 minutes, the war on drugs seems more than ever like a war destined to go on forever before being lost on every side.

Director: Matthew Heineman.
A The Orchard release. Running time: 98 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic violent images, sexual situations, drug use. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Sunset Place.