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.
★★★★ review by James on Letterboxd
“We cooks, we gotta lay low now that we’re part of the government. Us selling drugs, cooking drugs, it doesn’t look right. But it’s always going to happen. It’s just not going to stop, period. It’s a never-ending story”.
Matthew Heineman's boots on the ground approach to exploring the grim reality of the Mexican cartel is a revelatory and thrilling experience that captures the brutality and hopelessness of the situation whilst also imbuing a silent critique of the vigilante forces that oppose the drug gangs.
The film crew ingratiate themselves into two separate vigilante groups on both side of the border, comprised of those who have had enough of the lack of support from governmental forces and have decided to take up arms themselves. The two storylines are cleverly weaved into one cohesive structure, giving the film a sense of scope and whilst cinematically it is conventional for a documentary, there are flourishes of style that draw comparisons to its fictional counterpart from the same year, Sicario that complement the gritty street level camerawork.
It remains purely objective in that viewers are left to form their own opinions simply from the events filmed, though it has clearly been assembled in a way that builds up and then deconstructs these vigilante justice groups. At first they are presented as heroes, taking back towns from the cartel and liberating citizens, but later the cracks begin to show as they are seen gradually and inevitably becoming the very criminals they set out to destroy.
Cartel Land offers an eye-opening and riveting look at a modern day crisis from a perspective never before seen on camera. Often it feels more like watching an action thriller than a documentary, which makes the violence all the more harrowing when the realisation that this isn't fiction returns.
★★★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.
★★★★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 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.
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