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A physician in Michoacán, Mexico leads a citizen uprising against the drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Across the U.S. border, a veteran heads a paramilitary group working to prevent Mexico's drug wars from entering U.S. territory.Written by
"Cartel Land" does things that few documentary filmmakers would even think of doing.
Deep in the desert, where no legitimate government rules, a terrorist organization operates freely. Established governments fear them. They're well-financed, violent and ruthless. They control large swaths of land, including some cities and towns, causing local residents to live in fear. The members of this organization think nothing of murdering their enemies or killing just to make a point. They murder men, women and children, and even celebrate those deaths. They often decapitate their victims and sometimes use the internet to publicize videos and photos of their brutality. They even evoke the name of their god to justify their actions.
I'm not talking about the Middle East or ISIS. I'm talking about Mexican drug cartels.
The documentary "Cartel Land" (R, 1:38) shows everything I just described and more, but focuses mainly on vigilante groups who fight the cartels – on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The film's title refers to areas of Mexico – and areas of the United States as well. U.S. Marine veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley leads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon whose volunteer members carry semi-automatic rifles and patrol Arizona's Altar Valley ("Cocaine Alley") for any sign of drug traffickers operating on the U.S. side of the border. Meanwhile, Jose Mireles leads the Autodefensas, whose members carry similar weapons in their quest to root out members of the ruthless drug cartel which operates in the area around the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Both of these vigilante groups operate outside of their government's good graces but both governments refrain from direct action against the groups, even seeming to work with them on some level.
The film alternates between following both groups as they struggle to turn back the advancing tide of cartels operating in their areas and also deal with manpower and leadership issues and with the friction between them and their respective governments. The story of these two vigilante groups is bookended by scenes shot during methamphetamine production by cartel affiliates at a remote outdoor location in Mexico. With their faces covered, this small group of men goes about their business unfettered and they even talk to the camera. At one point, their leader admits that what they're doing is wrong, but doesn't seem to care. He says that they'll continue cooking meth "as long as God allows it". Similarly, the leaders of both Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas justify their actions, even as some of their methods resemble those of the cartels.
"Cartel Land" does things that I've never seen before in any documentary and does others better than I've ever seen them done. I've rarely praised either of these in other documentaries, but the cinematography and the score are both magnificent. Even more impressive than how it was shot is where it was shot. Besides gaining practically unprecedented access to that secret meth lab, director Matthew Heineman embeds with these vigilante groups, following them on their missions and getting up close and personal with some of the action in some obviously dangerous situations. (The film won the directing and cinematography awards in its category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.) The editing is also extremely impressive. The film contains more surprising reveals and vital story developments than in many traditional movie thrillers. Besides Heineman's obvious talents (and guts), it probably didn't hurt that one of the doc's executive producers is Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar-winning director of "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty". Bigelow and Heineman's film is quite simply one of the best documentaries I have ever seen and only the second one that I have ever given this grade: "A".
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