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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Cartel Land documentary review: the war on drugs can have no winners

Cartel Land green light

A real-life action thriller, a terrifying companion piece to Sicario. Do we want the wild West in the 21st century? Because that’s what we’ve got.
I’m “biast” (pro): not a fan of the war on drugs

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Like a real-life action thriller… and a terrific, and terrifying, companion piece to Sicario. That’s Cartel Land, in which documentarian Matthew Heineman goes in deep behind the blurred lines of the “war on drugs” as it plays out over the U.S.–Mexican border. On the U.S. side, he follows military vet Tim “Nailer” Foley and his self-styled “nongovernmental organization” Arizona Border Recon — one gets the sense this is a man who was bored with civilian life and wanted back into the action — who declares that the group is there to “uphold the law where there is no law.” On the Mexican side, Heineman introduces us to Dr. Jose Mireles, “El Doctor,” who leads the citizens’ militia Autodefensas: Foley might be playing soldier — and, much uglier, proud race warrior protecting white purity from all the brown people pouring over the border — but it really is a matter of life and death for Mireles: the cartels murder indiscriminately to protect their profits. The men on both sides of the border insist that their governments are useless to stop the cartels, and indeed, we do see the Mexican police as little more than partners with the cartels. (The big issue in America is all the users, ie, paying customers.) But as this harrowing slow-burn of a film demonstrates, even the nominal heroes of this saga turn out to be terrible, not just interestingly flawed as we might expect of any human being, but subject to unique brands of wrongdoing, operating outside not only laws of juridprudence but laws of ethics and morality, too. (Is there a hint here that the prospect of legalizing currently illegal drugs, which would end the cartels’ reign of terror, would be opposed by Autodefensas because it would cut into their power? You better believe it.) If there is one underlying takeaway from this depressing but essential movie, it’s that current legal policies on drugs are a complete disaster with absolutely no upside, except to create a path for weak, corrupt men to build fiefdoms of local power. Do we want the wild West in the 21st century? Because that’s what we’ve got.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Cartel Land for its representation of girls and women.

green light 4 stars

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Cartel Land (2015)
US/Can release: Jul 03 2015
UK/Ire release: Sep 04 2015

MPAA: rated R for violent disturbing images, language, drug content and brief sexual material
BBFC: rated 15 (images of real corpses, strong language, drug references)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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