In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor," shepherds a citizen uprising against the Knights Templar, the violent drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona's Altar Valley—a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley—Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to halt Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border.
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★★★½ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd
On paper, a structure that compares vigilante groups on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border makes a lot of sense. But in practice, the scenes in Mexico (where a vigilante group called the Autodefensas springs up to protect locals from a drug cartel that is intimidating and murdering the populace) are a lot more compelling than the ones in America (where a bunch of right-wingers patrol the border to little effect). It feels like director Matthew Heineman recognized that too; after early scenes establish a back-and-forth structure, the Americans fade into the background while the leader of the Autodefensas, Dr. José Mireles, becomes the main protagonist. Massive respect to Heineman for his fearless work in the field, but if he'd applied an equally bold approach in the editing room and cut the U.S. scenes entirely, he'd have an even stronger documentary.
★★★½ review by Vincent Lao on Letterboxd
Matthew Heineman’s documentary on War on Drugs and the individuals working to solve the problem is quite vivid and a truly eye-opening exposé. Cartel Land exposes the dangers and ugly truths of this interminable cancer of our society. It doesn’t lay the answers or solutions, but it perfectly examines the idea of ‘how it is’ kind of mindset.
Heineman tries to have a two-sided kind of narrative telling two stories of men in two different sides of the battle: one who is an American vigilante in Arizona and another is a leader of paramilitary in Michoacán, Mexico. The latter’s narrative overshadows the former’s story which brings an unbalanced setup, but still centers on one subject. I wished it centers solely on the leader of the Mexican paramilitary Jose Mireles, because frankly the other guy’s story is somehow unnecessary.
Overall, Cartel Land delivers what it supposed to address. And it is how treacherous our world is and no one can stop this cancer not even our respective governments and police forces. Somehow they are all connected, working together and this devastates me so much. So many lives have been wasted and we people deserved more than this.
★★★★ review by Jordan Rowe on Letterboxd
"Cartel Land" is no easy watch, but it's a beautifully constructed, hard-hitting documentary that shows how horrific and violent humans can be toward one another.
★★★★½ review by sprizzle on Letterboxd
Cartel Land is intense. Screw the talk about "false equivalence". Take the documentary for what it's worth on the surface. A camera taking in the perspective from a few different vantage points surrounding cartels in Mexico. Someone taking some serious risks to get footage from inside dangerous areas in Mexico. Filming some less dangerous yet in some regards more "extreme" areas in the United States. It's a really pretty documentary that has great flow. And it's about one of the biggest issues currently indirectly affecting America.
I'll be honest, I'm selfish. I want the cartel problem to be cleaned up so I can visit Mexico again. It's a beautiful country full of absolutely beautiful people. It sucks the cartels and drug trade have stifled the brilliance of their culture. It sucks those people have to fear for their lives and their children's lives everyday. People who have fled to America with family in Mexico wait for bad news everyday. It's a problem that may or may not have a simple solution. Legalizing drugs most likely wouldn't put much of a hurt on the gangs. The problem is bigger than that. But I'm no expert. I don't have the solution.
Even if you don't agree with the "message", you have to give some respect to the filmmakers. There is some real danger here. Real violence is happening in Mexico everyday. To have the courage to go down and tell their story, and in such a beautiful way, is commendable. I don't know what my favorite documentary is this year if it isn't Cartel Land.
★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
I don't usually like shakycam action scenes, but there are a few instances where they work better than anything else. When the car Cartel Land director Matthew Heinemann is sat in is strafed by gunfire, his camera flails around and lands on the ground outside. That's not the incredible bit. The incredible bit is that, without missing a second, he points the camera back at his interview subject (who is now squatting behind the car taking pot-shots at the unseen attackers) and adjusts the aperture. Again, he's adjusting the camera's light levels during a gunfight. What can you say about this?
If you just watch Cartel Land for its daredevil film-making, you'll get your money's worth. In terms of its politics, it's been criticised for drawing an equivalence between vigilante groups on both sides of the border, using scenes of cartels at work to bookend a narrative split between an armed Arizona anti-immigration group led by Tim Foley and the Autodefensas, a Mexican anti-cartel movement led by José Mireles.
I'm not sure Heinemann is drawing an equivalence so much as he's making a comparison, a distinction which is more important than it sounds. Undoubtedly it was easier for me to approach the Foley segments because I'm not American - I can put my passport in between me and the film, to quote Bruno Ganz. But he came across as an absolute hypocrite, complaining that illegal immigrants were parasites because they didn't pay taxes, then issuing predictably right-wing views on the federal government those taxes would have gone towards. His opening reminiscence of those happy days when vigilantes were well-liked and not racist (seriously) seemed even more narcissistic next to Mireles's central principle of acting on behalf of, and in tandem with, his community.
But Mireles, too, has feet of clay, and Heinemann is certainly aware that a community that is dependent on an unelected vigilante group to keep itself safe is a community that's already pretty much doomed. I had previously considered the war on cartels to be too huge, too political and too grotesque to make a satisfying feature about, but films like this and Sicario are starting to work towards that ideal film on the issue, one that spares neither cartel nor vigilante nor dealer nor consumer nor the utterly culpable governments of Mexico and America from its fury at this obscene situation.
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