The past looms heavily over the subjects of Bernardo Ruiz’s Kingdom of Shadows, their visible numbness and empty stares painfully evoking years of being gripped by the war on drugs. Ruiz distills this far-reaching conflict to three perspectives: Oscar Hagelsieb, a former undercover agent tasked with stopping cartels in his role as a senior Homeland Security officer in El Paso; Sister Consuelo Morales, a social worker in the ravaged Mexican city of Monterrey who helps the families of the victims of cartel violence; and Don Henry Ford Jr., a Texas rancher who worked as a marijuana smuggler during the 1980s. If the film offers nothing new in the way of information about the war on drugs, it’s because Ruiz is more interested in charting how decades of separate experiences from three people gradually shape identical outlooks on the drug war, in spite of the subjects’ varied cultural differences.
Kingdom of Shadows possesses a novelistic sweep in its sprawling narrative and depiction of its subjects. Hagelsieb, Morales, and Ford suggest characters in an increasingly chaotic morality play, one in which a person’s capacity for goodness remains consistently in check, whether that person is a low-level cartel member or a high-ranking government official. Ford, with his bruised masculinity, solipsistic lifestyle, and bleak worldview (especially evinced by his descriptions of the cartels’ evolution into hyper-violence), feels as if he stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. And while the personal histories of these three subjects are prominently detailed, revealing three people from very different social backgrounds, Ruiz hopscotches between El Paso, Monterrey, and Ford’s ranch with such temporal fluidity that the locations almost become indistinguishable from one another.
Cartel violence is never shown in the film. Instead, Ruiz relies heavily on firsthand accounts from affected families and Hagelsieb to convey the cartels’ stronghold over Mexico. Ruiz presents an indelible juxtaposition when the serene Morales, a figure of seemingly unwavering hopefulness, listens to story after story of horrific atrocities from family members of cartel victims and subsequently attempts to calm them. But Ruiz also reveals how Morales and Hagelsieb have come to the realization that there’s next to nothing they can do to solve the crisis. Ruiz touches on something that’s just as tragic as the scores of families losing loved ones: That the people at the forefront of stopping such horrible violence have resigned to the fact that they’re merely going through motions for the foreseeable future while an unwinnable conflict spins more and more out of control.