On the eve of World War II, the great director, Jean Renoir, gave one of the most tragic and truthful dictums of all time, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”

That was true for the film in which it was said (The Rules of the Game) and remains true to this day, especially as the U.S./Mexico border is being ripped apart by Cartels, gangs, mafia, and corrupt government officials. Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman doesn’t need to give statistics, facts, or talking points; he just needs to let his subjects speak their reasons, and boy do they have plenty of them.

What Heineman offers is an infuriating struggle between communities, criminals, and vigilantes, all trying to make ends meet while trying to make sense of a maddening situation. Heineman focuses on three main subjects: Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician and head of the Autodefensas in Michoacán, Mexico; Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American volunteer for Arizona’s Border patrol; and Papa Smurf, Mireles’s second-in-command making his move from the Autodefensa to a government agency.

Heineman allows these men to speak their mind—which often damns them in one form or another—but shows that their opinions are based not on esoteric facts or political sound bites but real-world experiences. 

Of the three, Mireles is most easily identifiable as a hero—though he has his own sets of personal issues—as the community doctor trying to rally the people to defend themselves. Foley comes off as the most insensitive, essentially taking the law into his own hands to settle past vendettas, yet he is merely a product of his past as certain sympathies become clear. Papa Smurf, on the other hand, is the problem incarnate. Shifting from side to side, he is better than the criminals he hunts.

Cartel Land won both the directing and cinematography awards for U.S. Documentary at this past Sundance Film Festival, and both are rightly deserved for Heineman’s frontline reporting. There is the occasional tinge of bias in the way Heineman presents these people and their stories, but there isn’t a moment where he flinches, even in the face of a cartel firefight.

Cartel Land opens with a group of Mexican meth cooks talking candidly—their faces covered by masks—to Heineman’s camera. These cooks explain what they do and how they do it, setting the viewer up and explaining that the drugs provide money to buy weapons which are then used to fight for the drugs. Heineman spends the next 90 minutes delving into what is at stake on both sides of the border, only to return to these cooks, even recycling footage and a few lines from the opening to hammer his point home. Now we know who is under that mask, and the real problem finally comes into razor-sharp focus.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Cartel Land (2015)
Directed by: Matthew Heineman
Produced by: Matthew Heineman & Tom Yellin
The Orchard, Rated R, Running time 98 minutes, Opens July 10, 2015.