Questions about vigilantism are at the heart of Cartel Land, a gripping documentary on the people risking their lives taking a stand against Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the border. Directed by Matthew Heineman, whose camerawork is athletic and fearless, the movie unfolds like a blockbuster action flick, not unlike executive producer Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty. The film starts in Mexico, in the dead of night, with masked men cooking meth, explaining that while the drugs might wreak havoc in America, it’s the only way for them to escape poverty. What choice do they have?

From here, the documentary is split down the border. On the American side, the lens follows Tim “Nailer” Foley, a veteran and former meth addict who leads a group called Arizona Border Recon. Heavily armed and tattooed, Foley and his comrades patrol the desert, rounding up drug smugglers and would-be immigrants. While the group is, in a sense, an anti-government militia with questionable barroom theories on race, their main concern is the ever-encroaching influence of the ruthless and seemingly unstoppable cartels. With night vision, the camera follows their patrols, tapping into their nervousness, dedication and concern.

On the southern side of the border, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Heineman tells the story Dr. Jose Mireles, aka “El Doctor.” This local practitioner starts an armed people’s group called the Autodefensas to combat the brutal, baby-smashing Knights Templar cartel. In the beginning, the people rally around the Autodefensas as the cartel members are rounded up and the state is cleansed. On camera, Mireles appears like a saint, albeit one with huge cojones. But as the movement grows, and Mireles is seriously wounded in a plane crash, the nature of the Autodefensas changes. Under the leadership of a man nicknamed “Papa Smurf,” their tactics begin to look more and more like those of the cartels. And so begins the corruption.

Meanwhile, Mireles also changes. His saintliness all but vanishes as he brazenly hits on young women, and before long “El Doctor” finds himself on the run and alone. Watching this is not only incredible at the human, dramatic level, it’s also amazing that Heineman got so much of this on camera. There are so many oh-my-God moments in Cartel Land that one could see the project simply as an example of Heineman’s courage. Yet, the main questions that come out of this film poke at the nature of vigilantism. Are such groups doomed to corruption and paranoia? Can there be proper accountability for those working outside the law? And can giving drug cartels a taste of their own medicine ever be justified?

Cartel Land is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

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Vigilantism is also a theme in Charles Stone III’s Lila and Eve, in which grieving mothers played by Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez seek revenge for the drive-by death of a child. While the film does an OK job at showing a black mother’s frustration with a seemingly indifferent and ineffective police force, the entire story implodes on a cliché plot twist so absurd and silly you could guess it by looking at the promotional poster.

Honestly, it’s tough to overstate how terrible the twist is. Not even Davis’ impressive acting chops can compensate for it. The problem could have been avoided, perhaps, had the narrative pacing been better. Instead, a lot of different elements are suggested (mental illness, grief, acceptance of death), but the film fails to flesh them out and/or develop any real sense of suspense, mystery or drama. The story, instead, is basically just a killing spree.

Davis plays Lila, the mother of the teenage son gunned down as collateral damage in a drive-by. At an Atlanta support group for mothers of murdered children, she meets another grieving mom, Eve (J.Lo). Almost immediately, Eve convinces Lila to do something about her son’s death. Initially, that means redoing her house. But when Lila finds a gun in her other son’s backpack, the two mothers go hunting for clues as to why Lila’s son died, and almost everyone they talk to ends up dead. All the while, questions linger as to who Eve really is.

The story gets a bit more interesting and nuanced when a mother of two boys they kill ends up attending their support group. It’s a nice nod to the universality of suffering and death. Yet, the film struggles to speak on any other theme. It doesn’t help that J.Lo’s performance is the equivalent of a meal being smothered in tepid hot sauce: she’s just this one-note sassy character with almost zero charisma. And she certainly can’t compete with Davis on screen. It’s entirely possible that the film could have been twice as good if it were just called Lila, about a mom looking for answers, revenge, and freedom from helplessness and grief. And there’d be no need for that lame plot twist.

Lila and Eve is playing at the Mall of America theaters.

Jonathon Sharp

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