The documentary "Cartel Land" makes for urgent and topical viewing, ignoring the blustering of politicians for a grounds-eye view of life on both sides of the volatile U.S.-Mexico border.
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman risked his life to obtain some extraordinary immersive footage of gun battles with Mexican cartel members in the stricken Michoacán state, where he focuses on the efforts Dr. Jose Mireles, the leader of the anti-cartel vigilante group Autodefensas.
Mireles' American counterpart is Tim "Nailer" Foley, who leads the vigilante Arizona Border Recon.
The movie cuts between these two facets of the same world to present a unified portrait of lives under siege, cutting between interviews with the two men, harrowing portraits of the violent forces in their lives (especially on the Mexican side of the border) and fly-on-the-wall representations of the main figures on the job.
Mireles is a rousing populist leader, prone to grandiose pronouncements. Foley is quieter and mysterious, filled with the intensity of unrelenting purpose. Both men belie the stereotypes that have been typically associated with their types and their work.
That's not to suggest Heineman looks at the situation with naiveté or a blind desire to overcorrect common narratives. The moral picture is deeply complicated.
There are plenty of racist sentiments espoused by Foley's counterparts; the conduct of the Autodefensas often bleeds into cruelty; the picture begins and ends with footage of masked cartel members cooking meth and expressing their disappointment with what they are forced to do to survive.
The movie transcends the conventions of the standard geopolitical screed, which so often transforms this and other complex issues into a concise dichotomy between good and evil.
"Cartel Land" is essential viewing because it is enmeshed in the haze of reality, not the simplicity of fiction. There are no easy answers.