Matthew Heineman's documentary about the Mexican drug wars plays like a real-life version of some grim Sam Peckinpah Western in which violence and corruption have become endemic. The film opens in disconcerting fashion with cartel meth cooks in Michoacán discussing their business matter-of-factly, as if drug-running is an everyday business in a region where other employment opportunities are scarce.
The story has two main strands. For part of it, Heineman follows Tim "Nailer" Foley, a vigilante on the Mexican border. A lean, leathery-faced figure, he comes from a broken background and is a former drugs user who now wages war against the cartels. He blames the "illegals" for ruining his job opportunities and clearly finds catharsis in hunting down drug smugglers with his group, Arizona Border Recon.
The more interesting part of the film focuses on Dr José Mireles, a handsome, womanising surgeon who spearheaded the Michoacán resistance movement, the Autodefensas, against the Knights Templar cartel.
This is not a simple story of good vs evil. The Mexican government and local authorities often appear to be in cahoots with the cartels. So do certain members of the Autodefensas, including the colourfully named "Papa Smurf". The vigilantes' behaviour mirrors that of the drug dealers they are trying to bust.
Cartel Land can be seen as a study of machismo in its different forms. Heineman has captured some astonishing footage of gun fights, cartel members being roughed up, vigilantes instructing their followers to kill the cartel members they have captured and of local people protesting bitterly against the intimidation and violence they face. It helps that the experiences of Mireles provide him with a storyline as full of reversals and ironies as that of any fictional thriller.Reuse content