If the key to price in real estate is "location, location, location," the key to success in vérité-style documentaries is "access, access, access." Which is what "Cartel Land" has in compelling amounts.
Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the hellish morass that is the drug war in Mexico has resulted in numerous documentaries, including such recent efforts as "Narco Cultura" and "Western." "Cartel Land" is one of the most involving (and a double prize winner at Sundance) because of where it's managed to go and what it's managed to show us.
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman (he directed, co-edited and was the main cinematographer) says in a statement that "it took many months to gain the trust and to gain the access that I needed to tell this story."
The individuals he is talking about are "Cartel Land's" twin protagonists, vigilantes from two different countries and two different cultures who are determined, each in his own way, to fight back against the endemic violence the Mexican drug cartels bring to everything they touch.
Jose Mireles lives and works in the belly of the beast, the Mexican state of Michoacán, where taking on the cartels seemed to him and those around him like the only way to stay alive.
Tim "Nailer" Foley is an American living in Arizona's Altar Valley, and his fear of the cartels extending their influence in the United States has elements of suspicion of the federal government and opposition to illegal immigration, which he believes the cartels have a hand in.
After Heineman (whose first film was the excellent but quite different "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare") spent months winning trust, he spent a similar amount of time filming and observing. The result is filled with the kind of unexpected events only reality provides, a film whose narrative gets increasingly complex as the situation on the ground changes.
Before it gets to its main characters, "Cartel Land" opens with one of its most chilling scenes, a middle-of-the-night visit to an outdoor meth lab à la "Breaking Bad."
The man in charge, masked, as are all his confederates, quietly mixes the chemicals and boasts, "We are No. 1 here in Michoacán, the most quantity and the best quality."
A bit of a philosopher, the man sounds bleakly apologetic about his line of work. "What are you going to do, we come from poverty," he explains. "If we start paying attention to our hearts, we get screwed over. We will do this as long as God allows."
This kind of apologia, the sense that the world at large does not appreciate the reasons why he and others are in this line of work, is one of "Cartel Land's" through lines, as both Foley and Mireles sound similar notes. Heineman is always dispassionate, leaving us to make whatever comparisons we feel are necessary.
Sounding especially defensive is Foley, who knows that "vigilantes have been given a bad name" and sees his team as no more than "concerned citizens arming themselves." He and his men play soldier at the border areas, stopping small groups of illegal aliens and hoping for bigger fish.
In Michoacán, where the Knights Templar cartel, an offshoot of the dread Zetas, are a very visible presence, the situation on the ground is more compelling and more dangerous.
Mireles, a doctor by trade, is the charismatic founder and leader of Grupo de Autodefensa, a group of armed citizens who go from town to town asking residents to help them go literally house to house to evict cartel personnel.
"Cartel Land's" most astonishing footage comes in the town of Apo. After the Mexican army, no fan of vigilante action, comes in to disarm the Autodefensas, the townspeople rise up against the soldiers and drive them out of town. But while this might sound like a classic Robin Hood story, reality has a lot more twists in store, and figuring out exactly who the good guys are gets increasingly problematic.
Often his own cinematographer, Heineman found himself in dangerous, gunfire-filled situations but managed to create memorable images along the way. "It's a never-ending story," someone says, and one whose increasing difficulties this film never shies from presenting.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; University Town Center 6, Irvine