Nick Vass’s review published on Letterboxd:
Cartel Land has remarkable access for a documentary. It offers more than just a glimpse on the US-Mexico war on drugs. It snatches you right into the corruption in a searingly uncompromising manner.
It is also one of the bravest examples of frontline journalism ever committed to celluloid.
An uncomfortable opening scene shows a group of crystal meth cooks in the dusky Mexican desert. They brag about the quality of their goods. They have the best production equipment and import on both sides of the border. They are well aware of what harm is being caused. But in a region where employment opportunities are scarce—living in poverty, they respond, "What else are we going to do? We would be like you."
That's the situation. It's also a scene that sets the underlying theme of Cartel Land. It asks about the notion of rebelling against a society and what could happen if militant obedience is challenged.
Matthew Heineman embeds himself within these aspects by focusing on two men. José Mireles, or known as "El Doctor", lives in the Mexican state of Michoacán and is the spokesman for a citizens rebellion movement called the Autodefensas. They're opposing the Knights Templar cartel who have the largest control of drugs in Michoacán. But it's such a lawless country that even the vigilantes who are in the Autodefensas are still working for the cartels.
In the Arizona desert, former drugs user and army veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley, leads a small paramilitary group whose first priority is stopping the cross-border narcotics trade. His role, even self-described, is like "David versus Goliath" when it comes to the minuscule Arizona Border Recon waging war against the major cartels.
I appreciate both perspectives. It establishes the team's strategim. But to me, it somewhat bludgeons the immediate urgency and sheer terror that Heinemen finds in Michoacán. The scope is smaller and it simply functions as a reiteration of protective tactics. Thankfully, this subplot has minimal screentime and the gaze is still in Mexico.
There's such a pragmatic shock in Cartel Land that even the immense Sicario was unable to cover. For instance, there's a mass funeral for 15 innocent workers. Their lime farmer boss refused to pay his dues to the Knights Templar. The tearful family members talk about children being beaten with rocks and having their bodies thrown down a well. It's distressing to watch.
Following this, Heinemen sticks with the Autodefensas and captures their revolution with astonishing footage. Mireles' confident skillset and ability to persuade the families who want revenge is in plain sight—gun fights, street arguments, evictions and drug bosses getting violently abused. In one moment of horror, a man working for the Autodefensas shows a beheading of his friend on a cellphone. It'd be impossible to dispute that Heinemen hasn't researched or been so lived-in to an endemic such as this.
His approach also works like a fictional thriller of sorts. Both as a moral rumination and in its filmic qualities. It shows the incentives of ordinary people who can have a darker motive. It roves around the danger with no fussiness whatsoever.
Ultimately, the final thought of power being able to corrupt everyone is what really lingers. This is a cyclical issue that suggests the cartels cannot be beaten on neither side. It's the reality of the tragedy and an important documentary.