The fact that Cartel Land was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar is both concerning and makes complete sense. Normally that combination would signal a problem with the Academy’s selection process, and while that is what could be going on here, that’s not the entire picture. Cartel Land is at times an incredibly proficient piece of documentarian storytelling, but at other times it feels amateur and directionless, wandering away from its central thesis into a point that it never fully develops, if that point even existed in the first place.
The running theme of the film is of vigilantism in the face of the Mexican drug cartels, primarily as seen through the eyes of the Autodefensas, a group founded in the Mexican state of Michoacán by Dr. Josė Mirales. The film does a great job of portraying the Autodefensas in both positive and negative lights, whether it be in the impact they have on the cartels’ grip on local communities or on the way the soldiers among their ranks are flawed people who might not be the most deserving or trustworthy when given a gun and free reign to hunt bad guys. The character study of Mirales himself is particularly interesting, as he supposedly sacrifices closeness with his family in order to fight for the cause and yet uses his power to seduce younger women.
But the main reason I think this film was Oscar nominated was because it obviously was very dangerous to shoot, and documentarian Matthew Heineman often chooses to face that danger head on. There are multiple firefights caught on film that Heineman is directly involved in, with frantic Autodefensa members telling him to get down and out of the way. The devotion to the craft is admirable, as is the willingness to look at the bloody aftermath of the firefights and the devastation of the families whose loved ones were caught in the crossfire. That said, the film strangely decides to censor itself during certain moments, like a scene in an Autodefensa “prison camp” where people can clearly be heard being tortured in the background, but the camera instead chooses to focus on a more benign interrogation. It isn’t that I’m eager to watch someone be tortured, and perhaps the openness of the Autodefensas to be captured on film only extends so far, but it felt odd at the very least given the lack of restraint earlier in the film.
The film’s biggest problem, though, is its insistence on cutting back to an American vigilante group, the Arizona Border Recon (ABR). This is an extremist group that hunts down people trying to cross the border from Mexico into Arizona, but the film never presents any evidence to suggest that their actions are having any impact on cartel trade. Heineman isn’t shy about showing how the members of this group are generally motivated by racism and misplaced economic frustrations rather than the drug trade, so it’s more than a little baffling why he decides to spend so much time on them. If he is seeking to make a contrasting statement about the ABR against a more morally reasonable Autodefensa, the film is not edited in such a way to suggest it; likewise, if he was trying to compare the two, the comparison feels completely disingenuous based on their different mission statements. It feels like Heineman shot his footage with the ABR and then didn’t know how to make it thematically fit with the rest of his film, yet decided to include it anyway.
Cartel Land still has plenty to offer as a look into the Autodefensas, even if it shies away from the odd moment of brutality. It was clearly a work of intense labor and dedication, and I think that is what the Academy was trying to honor with its nomination. But I honestly can’t wrap my mind around why its second vigilantic focus is even here, and that keeps the hard work from entirely paying off.