Mexico has had a problem with drug cartels for decades, but the country’s drug war didn’t officially start until Felipe Calderón ordered a battalion of troops to Michoacán for the dispensal of indiscriminate justice in 2006. You can trace the fallout of Calderón martial intervention either through good old fashioned journalism or U.S. pop culture: Mexico’s drug war may be an older war, after all but it’s just starting to pique the interest of American viewers years after Breaking Bad first mined drama out of cartel barbarity.
End of Watch, Savages, Sabotage, The Counselor, and even middle road studio comedies like We’re the Millers: The list of fictional narratives relying on cartel notoriety is short but increasing as attention to the fracas grows in proportion to the escalation of violence. (Lest we forget, Traffic came out to great fanfare long before the mid aughts.) Recently, Quebecois golden boy Denis Villeneuve put on waders and strolled waist-deep into the morass of cartel brutality with Sicario, a slow-burn crime thriller that contextualizes the distant horrors of the conflict within a U.S. point of view. The film sticks with straight arrow idealist FBI SWAT agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she marches into the heart of darkness with smugly nonchalant DoD adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his enigmatic, scary-as-hell partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), men on a mission to kick the proverbial hornets’ nest by screwing around with one cartel boss’ finances and enterprises.
But Villeneuve’s film concerns itself more with the patriarchal bureaucratic suppression Kate contends with in the line of duty than with Mexico’s cartel dilemma. At least he had the prescience to make Sicario in time for a 2015 release: If that story leaves you hungry for real insight into the many moving parts of the battle to topple the country’s narco empires, you can turn to Matthew Heineman’s daring documentary, Cartel Land. Heineman explores Mexico’s ruthless drug trade quite literally from both sides of the fence. He spends time with a vigilante border patrol group in Arizona as well as a civilian-led self-defense team called Grupos de Autodefensas (which, coincidentally, happens to be based in Michoacán), led by the good doctor José Manuel Mireles, who turns out to be less good than we think.
Heineman doesn’t just sit back on his heels and conduct talking head interviews with his subjects, either. He goes out ranging with Arizona Border Recon, keep an eye out for cartel scouts nestled in hills, lying in wait, and he finds himself right at the center of shootouts in city centers down in Michoacán. (Heineman manages to be present for the capture of a minor cartel boss, too, in a moment that’s laced with as much triumph as danger.) Cartel Land invests itself in the reality of cartel operations in ways that Sicario simply cannot, which makes deeper comparisons between the two inherently unfair. Villeneuve’s intentions aren’t documentarian but artistic, and he’s successfully calibrated Sicario to keep its audience on tenterhooks for two tense hours. Cartel Land, on the other hand, is a genuine if shaggy attempt at revealing truths about the drug war that most of us living comfortably at home in the States can’t begin to comprehend.
Cartel Land isn’t the first documentary to dive into particulars of the cartel problem, of course. Back in 2013, Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura painted a portrait of Mexico’s drug kingpins through the proliferation of narcocorridos, songs written with the goal of glorifying the horrific exploits of cartel thugs. Schwarz balances his picture on an axis of the worst injustice: He focuses on a musician risen to fame for his talents in writing narcocorridos, as well as a Juarez crime scene investigator, who lives his life in an actual cage whether he’s at home or on the job. He resides in a modest home that looks all the humbler in comparison to the tombs of dead narcos that Schwarz visits: They’re so opulent that they match mansions for sheer appalling square footage. Meanwhile, the singers who compose the disturbingly romanticized ditties about said narcos pad their own pockets. They’re basically war profiteers. We feel more enmity for them than for the narcos themselves.
Both Narco Cultura and Cartel Land leave lasting impressions, despite their fundamental differences: Watching them provokes despair, outrage, helplessness and even our hope, though there’s very little of it to be found in the ongoing bloodshed between the cartels, the military and Mexico’s citizens. (In that regard, the of honest nihilism in Sicario match up nicely with its documentary counterparts.) But Narco Cultura highlights the apathy toward suffering that allows the cartels to thrive off of atrocity while Cartel Land suggests that the perpetuation of cartel drug trafficking is an inevitability. They each highlight opposing sides of human nature. If people band together they can ward off tyranny, but then again, why not make a buck or two off of those tyrants instead of fighting them? When unwitting crowds dance to murder ballads and even guardian angels like Mireles can fall from grace, maybe the tyrants have already won.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft brews.