Film Review: Kingdom of Shadows

This crisply told eye-opener about the insidious effect of cartel corruption and violence on those living on both sides of the United States-Mexican border fights to reopen debate on a subject many people have given up on.
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In a year of strong films about the cartel violence threatening to undermine all of Mexico and take the United States border region with it, Bernardo Ruiz’s riveting documentary still stands tall. It might not have the embedded journalistic immediacy of Cartel Land or the action-film adrenaline spike of Sicario, but Kingdom of Shadows does what neither of those films could: put the viewer in the shoes of the film’s subjects and appreciate both the impossibility of the situation and the guarded optimism of those fighting it.

The film is broken into three strands, each using one subject to explain a way in which the cartel complex dominates life on the border. Sister Consuelo Morales is the most quietly fascinating of the three, in large part because she doesn’t defy a stereotype. A stolid tribute to the virtue of serene perseverance, Morales is an advocate in the violence-wracked city of Monterrey for the estimated 23,000 people who have been “disappeared” by the cartels or corrupt officials since 2007—a number, she notes, tragically comparable to the number of people disappeared during the Chilean and Argentinean dictatorships but far less acknowledged. She brings the disappeared’s living relatives to meet with the police supposedly investigating their case and counsels both sides toward some kind of mutually beneficial rapprochement.

Morales believes with good reason that the endemic corruption and the daily onslaught of horror-show cartel violence—torture, dismemberment, hanging beheaded corpses from overpasses, burning corpses in diesel-filled drums—has left the Mexican people “paralyzed with fear.” But she doesn’t give in to that terror. In a country where so few criminals (particularly anyone involved with the cartels or the government) are ever prosecuted, the one thing that could potentially affect the current stasis is Morales’ brand of optimistic perseverance.

Oscar Hagelsieb isn’t the kind to give up. A tattoo-covered biker with a lineman’s build and a street-smart confidence, Hagelsieb is the child of undocumented immigrants who grew up to be a high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officer. He spent years infiltrating cartels as an undercover agent and now talks about them in heartfelt yet dispassionate terms. They’re a fearsome enemy, his tone acknowledges, but not one that can’t be beat. That being said, he has little naiveté about what the underlying reason for all the smuggling, turf wars and shifting alliances is all about, and it’s much bigger than his part in it. “We’re all pawns in the game,” he says, noting how until the United States stops being the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs there won’t be any end to the border smuggling and its attendant violence.

Bringing a more laid-back, wistful perspective is Don Henry Ford, Jr. A rangy-looking white Texan who speaks a twangy Spanish, his story doesn’t fit into the expected mold. Although for years he worked as the farmer he looks every inch of, Ford ended up deeply indebted and needed an easier way to bring in revenue. That was how he started flying planeloads of Sinaloa cartel marijuana into the U.S. during the 1980s. His narrative serves as the quaint-sounding origin story for the terrors unleashed by the cartel wars of today. When he was doing this during the 1980s (a time nodded to in the opening-credit montage by including audio of Ronald and Nancy Reagan giving their best “Just say no” speeches), nobody even carried guns. It was a long way from the cartels’ current military-precision commando raids and ISIS-like terror campaigns. While Ford’s good-old-days memories shade at times into an almost naïve-sounding nostalgia, he has a snappy assessment of what decades of drug prohibition and interdiction have accomplished: “I don’t think they’ve stopped one damn joint” from crossing the border.

While Kingdom of Shadows has the same journalistic sting as Ruiz’s impassioned Reportero and an epic-sized visual sense, it doesn’t try to encompass the entire scope of this sprawling story. Instead, Ruiz allows this triptych of survivors to bear witness from multiple vantage points and to come to a kind of solution: Nothing ends until enough people get tired and decide to do something about it, together.

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