Emotionally-charged, relentlessly physical and intensely violent, the cartel drama has become a staple genre in American cinema. From classics like the hyper-violent Scarface to Oscar-awarded Traffic, last year’s critically acclaimed Sicario and the upsurge in cartel drama series, fascination with these stories doesn’t seem to be waning.
And now another one can be added to the list, 600 Miles, a newly released film by first timer Gabriel Ripstein. The story follows Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer), a young, naive and bright-eyed man trying to prove his manhood by smuggling weapons for a Mexican cartel. He drives back and forth between the United States and Mexico, picking up firearms and ammunition with an equally young American partner. After hiding the wares in a Suburban provided by his bosses, he drives them back over to Mexico and drops them off in an undisclosed warehouse for the next leg of their journey. During one trip in the US, plans are foiled when ATF agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) is about to arrest Arnulfo and Arnulfo’s partner attacks him. The partner runs, and the conflicted Arnulfo decides to kidnap Harris to take to his bosses. As the trip unfolds, underlying issues of masculinity and identity are explored.and Harris and Arnulfo become symbolic of a tense relationship between the United States and Mexico.
While 600 Miles and other well-received cartel dramas have been praised for their supposed objectivity and realistic representation of cartel violence and upheaval, I argue that they otherize Latino men by portraying their masculinity as hyper-aggressive, inherently violent and, therefore, capable only of criminality.
In the cartel drama genre, the violent masculinity is contrasted with a “proper” masculinity: one that will defeat the corruptness of machismo that is completely intertwined in the cartel business. This correct masculinity is personified in a Westernized, white male body: an American. While these white men are not necessarily presented as completely without flaw or violent aggression themselves, it is seemingly justified in the text due to their imperative role of purging Latin America of its insatiably violent inferiority. This ‘American exceptionalism’, personified in the character of ATF agent Harris, “…is placed at risk in battles against supposedly inferior, irrational, weak, and uncivilized opponents. When these opponents fail to be defeated as expected, there are cultural as well as political and military consequences” (Hasian 468). In other words, Harris’s survival and destruction of his (America’s) Mexican enemies is the ultimate successful ending.
These dichotomous, “good” and “bad” masculinities are also representational of the opposing countries themselves. As M. A. Hasian Jr. stated in his piece Military Orientalism at the Cineplex: A Postcolonial Reading of Zero Dark Thirty, “…U.S. exceptionalism can be used in the crafting of bifurcated worlds where the darkness of foreign lands is contrasted with the ‘openness of the United States and the American vision of equality and human rights'” (Hasian 466).While Hasian is specifically talking about the essentialized othering of Arab and Muslim countries and communities, I believe this same idea of othering can be applied to Latin America. In 600 Miles, Mexico is usually obfuscated by darkness. For example, Arnulfo is only shown sneaking back into Mexico in the dead of night, shrouding the passage into the country in a sinister blackness.
Most of the daylight scenes in Mexico take place in poorly light, inhospitable warehouses.
Not only is the land shown to be drastically different, but so are the background characters. These minor, seemingly insignificant characters are used to symbolize the values of a society. When we first meet Harris, he is tracking serial numbers on firearms and ammunition. When he begins to suspect Arnulfo of smuggling firearms, he goes around to gun shows and shops to find answers. This is where we see the American background players. They are all mild-mannered and helpful, eager, or at the very least unobjectionable to the forceful American halt on Mexican criminality. Contrary, the Mexican background characters are all portrayed as ineffectual, corrupt and yes, violent. In a scene with Arnulfo and the recently kidnapped Harris are driving, Harris looks out the window at a Mexican police officer who has pulled over and removed a father and his daughter from the vehicle. Harris has a look of desperation as he watches the police officer fade away. This sequence suggests Harris’s (America’s) judgment of Mexican government agencies apparent inability to do their jobs. There is another scene where Arnulfo is pulled over. The cops in this scene react violently when they see the kidnapped Harris and physically assault Arnulfo. Finally, there is another scene where we find out the cartel is lining the pockets of local police officers. These are all representational of “defective” masculinity in juxtaposition to the “ideal” (American) masculinity.
Superbly acted and well-directed, I was nonetheless disappointed in this film for its overt portrayals of American exceptionalism and Latino–specifically Mexican–inferiority. The dichotomy is even visually obvious. Looking back at the images provided, Hank Harris (Tim Roth) is physically situated in a superior way. In the poster, his face is slightly larger and the light is bathing him. An injury he sustained when Arnulfo’s partner attacked him is prominently displayed. He has a brave and meaningful look on his face. A waving American flag behind him wouldn’t be that out of place. Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer), on the other hand, is pushed to the background, his face turned away.
I saw the movie at St. Anthony Main in Northeast Minneapolis. The building is an older, historic theater housing two screens. The movie is a part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Tickets were $13.00 for nonmembers, $10.00 for festival members and $7.00 for students/children under 12. There was no pressure to by concession items, but I think that was because separate festival employees were in charge instead of regular St. Anthony Main employees.
A majority of the patrons were middle aged white people–some couples, some singles, some friends. Everyone mingled quietly before the movie. Shocking moments caused me and a couple other people to physically react–with a gasp and hand ready to stifle it. The intense and painful topic left the audience somber, though the people around me seemed to have positive things to say about it. I, however, was deeply bothered by its production of race and masculinity.
Hasian Jr., Marouf A. “Military Orientalism at the Cineplex: A Postcolonial Reading of Zero Dark Thirty”. Critical Studies in Media Communication 31:5, 464-478:2014.