American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
There is an enormous amount of pain within director Bernardo Ruiz’s “Kingdom of Shadows,” a mortified and outraged documentary about the inhumanity inflicted upon communities and families by warring cartels. The official numbers say that since 2007, 23,000 people have disappeared from drug war zones like Monterrey, Mexico, leaving their loved ones in a traumatizing limbo. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, towns like Socorro, TX have families that are preyed upon to be gateways, the cartels offering a false sense of fortuity for men and women who may feel limited by legal opportunities.
And yet, the documentary is a hollow experience, emotionally stifled by its plotless nature and lack of any visual edge. It’s a well-intentioned film that has a lot on its mind but without a gripping way to convey its passion, even by volleying between three different people who have experienced the impact of the cartels first-hand.
Working with those whose loved ones have disappeared is the stalwart Sister Consuelo Morales. We see her talking to distraught families in Monterrey, Mexico, who march down the street with images of their friends and family on t-shirts and posters. Ruiz sporadically shows Sister Morales in action, opting more to paint a blunt image of a potential futility for these marches, especially when their loved ones have been missing for years, and the police force is known to be corrupt. There is one moment in which Sister Morales sits with a woman as she pleads to government officials for help, but it is cut with a bizarre, easy resolve despite the extreme emotions at the center of it.
On the other side of the border, there’s cowboy Don Henry Ford Jr., of Belmont, TX. He provides one of the film’s few perspectives from the criminal side, nonetheless as a good ol’ boy who found himself becoming a drug mule in the 1980s, a cartel era that he states wasn’t as violent as it is now. Mirroring the documentary itself, Ford is not exactly the most charismatic presence, even when Ruiz has him staring straight back at us in his testimonial, talking about how his smuggling plane was caught by the feds. As Ford becomes more storyteller than anything else, Ruiz is stuck in how to present him, using out-of-context old photographs as a generic B-roll; even home video of Ford going through Mexico, or a side conversation with his reasonably disturbed son, provides nary a pulse.