Cartel Land (2015, directed by Matthew Heineman) and Western (2015, directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross) are so thematically similar that you could be forgiven for believing that they were programmed by True/False to play as apposite experiences. Both confront the "problem" of the United States/Mexico border. Both are steeped in the politics and violence of drug trafficking. Both of them are foregrounded by violence and the response to violence. Both of them cultivate an air of resignation and futility. For all that, they are very different films.
Of the two, Cartel Land is the more confrontational. It begins with a nocturnal meth cooking party in which one of the masked meth cookers tells the camera that he regrets the harm that he's doing, but that what else can he do? Farming no longer provides him with a life. This is a man with a double life. Most of the characters in this film lead double lives. The narrative is a double, too: following vigilantes patrolling the border on the US side and vigilantes fighting the cartels on the other side. In both narratives, the government is either impotent or actively malign. Among the Mexican vigilantes, there's an additional burden of corruption from within, both from the cartels who are under threat and from a government that seeks to co-opt them if they can't stamp them out. Both the Yankee and Mexican vigilantes have a serious gun fetish. The film isn't as binary as this sounds, though. Like most good documentary filmmakers, director Matthew Heineman recognizes a good story and chooses to follow the rise and fall of Dr. Jose Mireles, the leader of the Mexican vigilantes, who forges an effective movement only to see it eaten away from within and without. Most of the film's other concerns fall away while it pursues Mireles's story, though the filmmakers are savvy enough to provide a coda with the meth cookers to act as a bookend. It's almost too tidy, but the story between the bookends is always engrossing.
Western, for its part, has a more elegiac tone. It starts off with a festival celebrating the friendship between Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras across the Rio Grande, and it's pure cornpone Americana. The two cities are conjoined both culturally and economically. The two central characters are avatars of that symbiosis. Chad Foster is the sheriff of Eagle Pass, and he's fighting a losing rear-guard action against the forces of xenophobia that want to wall off his city from its neighbors. The other is Martin Walls, a cattleman who gets most of his stock from across the river. Both men are blindsided by the outbreak of a war between rival drug cartels that takes out Foster's opposite number in Piedras Negras. Like it or not, the fence goes up. The fence acts like a silent totem or a Greek chorus: always in the background, never really commented upon.
Both of these films exist within a genre framework. Cartel Land could be any number of he-man action films. The American vigilantes are the kinds of characters that would be at home in a Schwarzeneggerian epic. Western, for its part, wears its idiom in its title. It's a gentler film, but even more beholden to the tropes of its genre, featuring the strong silent lawman, the cattleman trying to scrape by, and the family under threat (we see a lot of footage between Martin Walls and his daughter).
This all breaks down, of course. Reality is seldom as tidy as the tropes of genre. Cartel Land subverts its nominal hero by casting his enterprise as having a dubious moral authority at best and as corrupt as hell at worse, while including a few creepy scenes of Mireles putting the make on a woman that could be his granddaughter. He's an ambivalent figure at best. The film detonates the idea that it has villains and heroes, too. Ultimately, it has people doing what they must to get by. It doesn't demonize any of its subjects--even its criminals--and as a result, it winds up all the more tragic.
Chad Foster in Western is a more traditional Western hero. You could imagine him being played by James Stewart or Gregory Peck. He's complicated, sure, but he's kind and forthright, too. Idealistic, even. Western has a more thoroughgoing sense of place, a product of a more limited scope and a more patient observational style. It's as much about The West as an idea as it is about the conflict it depicts. This is a better film along these lines than the Ross's last film, Tchoupitoulas, which I thought was overly contrived. This film is patient with its story and with its metaphors. It lets them find their meanings without forcing the issue. It trusts its observations and it trusts the audience.
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