'Kingdom of Shadows': Film Review

Courtesy of Participant Media
An intimate and personal portrait of a devastating issue.

Bernardo Ruiz's documentary explores the U.S.-Mexico drug war through the perspectives of three very different figures.

Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz puts a human face — three faces, to be exact — on the war on drugs in his documentary profiling three compelling figures who've been in the front lines dealing with the Mexican drug cartels. Providing a chilling nonfiction parallel to the recent Sicario, Kingdom of Shadows is both heartbreaking and disturbing.

Ruiz has chosen his subjects wisely. They are Sister Consuelo Morales, a 60-something nun based in the city of Monterrey who devotes herself to consoling the families of those who have gone missing and pressing government officials to do something about it; Don Henry Ford Jr., a grizzled Texas rancher who was a marijuana smuggler in the 1980s; and Oscar Hagelsieb, a former undercover agent who now is a senior Homeland Security officer.

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A more anonymous subject is a masked member of the feared Los Zetas drug cartel, who describes Moneterrey as "the most disputed territory in all of Mexico" and recounts his horrific duties of disposing victims' bodies in "narco graves" and "narco kitchens." He particularly had trouble dealing with the latter, which involved burning bodies into ashes.

"When I first started I couldn't eat chicken for a month," he informs us. "It smells almost exactly the same."

Although both Morales and Ford's experiences are fascinating, it's Hagelsieb who dominates the proceedings. Heavily tattooed and riding a Harley, he more closely resembles a biker gang member than a Homeland Security officer. The son of undocumented immigrants, he grew up in a poor, drug-infested Texas town before embarking on his dangerous law enforcement career. He admits to having felt safer while on assignment in the Middle East.

The filmmaker, who explored similar thematic territory in the Emmy Award-nominated Reporter, delivers a forceful if anecdotal account of the crisis, which has resulted in an official estimate (widely considered to be far too low) of 23,000 individuals having gone missing since 2007 as a result of the violence. Much like the fictional Sicario, the documentary includes wrenching images of mutilated corpses hung from bridges and lying in the streets.

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But perhaps the most powerful images are of the living, namely the solemn faces of family members of the missing who stare silently at the camera in the film's final moments. They offer an unspoken, haunting rebuke to all those who haven't done enough to curtail this growing crisis.  

Production companies: Boiling Pot, Quiet Pictures
Director/screenwriter: Bernardo Ruiz
Producers: Katia Maguire, Bernardo Ruiz
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Carlos Gomez Andonaegui, Jimena Marti Haik
Directors of photography: Antonio Cisneros, Juan Hernandez, Claudio Rocha
Editor: Carla Gutierrez
Composer: T. Griffin

Rated PG-13, 74 minutes