A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The impulse toward vigilantism on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border is the subject of Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” an exploration of some of the terrible consequences of ongoing drug wars that have produced far more deaths in Mexico but left people in both countries feeling like their officials’ failure to provide security compels them to take the law into their own hands.
Cutting back and forth between self-appointed border defenders in Arizona and “Autodefensa” groups trying to rid Mexico’s Michoacán state of cartel members, the film provides a fascinating, on-the-ground account of people struggling with situations that range from challenging to horrific. Not for the faint of heart, it sometimes puts its cameras right it the middle of gun battles, for a result that is extremely dramatic even if it also leaves a number of important questions regrettably unanswered.
On each side of the border, Heineman focuses on a self-motivated leader whose strengths can’t disguise certain psychological scars or character flaws. In Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley is a leathery veteran whose hard life has evidently contributed to his crusade to defend the U.S. from human and drug traffickers. After enduring physical and emotional abuse from his father, he says, he spent years trying to quell his demons with drugs and alcohol. Once a crisis brought him to the point of going clean, he got a job and led a respectable life until the economy tanked in 2008, after which he sold all his belongings, outfitted himself in paramilitary gear and set off to guard the border.
He and his cohorts – though he started out alone, he has gained followers – spend their days and nights trying to snare illegal immigrants, whom they turn over to U.S authorities. Though at one point we hear a news report saying the Southern Poverty Law Center regards such groups as part of a recent rise of extremism in the U.S., Foley’s crew don’t seem motivated by ideological or racist venom. They seem more like overgrown kids who love to put on camo fatigues, pick up guns and play army in the desert.