Apparently, all it takes to get a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Oscars is to stop at "we've got the footage!" without advancing to the necessary step of "we've formulated an argument with our footage!", because now we come along to Cartel Land, a film that had every excuse to be one of the year's non-fiction masterpieces, and simply refuses to make the hard choices that would seal the deal. The access that director Matthew Heineman had to his subjects is astonishing and eye-opening, and even in an utterly hobbled form, Cartel Land is essential viewing for anybody with any concerns about the violence of the Mexican drug industry. But that access seems to have cowed Heineman into packaging this material in an alarmingly banal form, with little to no interest in actually interrogating the people he was filming, either in person or in the editing room.

The film focuses on two very different groups with similar goals: in Michoacán, Mexico, Dr. José Mireles, a leader of one of the region's Autodefensas, grassroots vigilante groups fighting against the cartels in the face of governmental inability to anything worth a damn; while in the United States, Tim "Nailer" Foley leads the Arizona Border Recon, also a vigilante group, working hard to make sure that nobody crosses the U.S./Mexico border illegally. Including cartel members and their shipments of narcotics, but there's no real indication that "Nailer" would care about his job any less if he was only stopping routine illegal immigrants. This is one of those points that Heineman is fine with letting slide by without any meaningful intellectual engagement.

The footage gathered in Cartel Land by Heineman and his co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll is never less than astonishing, and one can only imagine the personal danger faced by Heineman and Porwoll in pursuing it. Actually, one doesn't need to imagine anything - Cartel Land is more than willing to share with us footage of the wanton violence meted out by the cartels on the vigilantes and the vigilantes on the cartels. It's certainly hard to fault the filmmakers for their bravery, or the unblinking, visceral intensity with which they set us right inside life as constant combat and tension between the bad guys and the guys who are not bad primarily because they're at least failing to materially profit from the sales of drugs. It's all enough to make Sicario look like a mildly unpleasant afternoon stroll.

And yet, as that viscera piles up, there's much less meaning to all of us this than meets the eye. The film obviously wants us to take it as a variation on the question, "can barbaric violence be fought with barbarism?", and I suppose its not not that. But Heineman gets awfully carried away by the vigilantes he's embedded with, and the end result is a film that makes this constant mortal dread seem at least as much stimulating as it is draining. I won't go so far as to call Cartel Land drug war porn, but it's awkwardly besotted with the material it's depicting, and a little bit of critical distance could surely only have helped make this is a real discussion of the issues, not just a vivid depiction of them.