'Cartel Land': Film Review

Cartel Land
'Cartel Land,' Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Sobering film on vigilante protection of Arizona border from cartels

Frightening doc on Arizona's lack of border control.

Documentarian Matthew Heineman filmed during shoot-outs, in meth labs and in the dark of the desert night. He put himself in deadly peril while shooting Cartel Land, his spellbinding, verite documentary — a frontline look at the murderous Mexican drug cartels. 

In this chilling Media Res production, Heineman focuses on two modern-day vigilante groups that take on the cartels. Back in the Wild West days, the term "vigilante" had a positive connotation: Vigilantes were the heroes who protected lawless regions from the bad guys. Today, the word has a pejorative meaning — vigilantes are seen as bloodthirsty assassins. Viewers might alter their leanings after watching this stark and scary documentary about the two vigilante groups. Their fights are last-ditch reactions to governmental failure to protect citizens from the cartels, both in the United States and Mexico. It’s pretty clear here who the good guys are.

Throughout, filmmaker Heineman intercuts between the two groups, one in Arizona and one in the Mexican state of Michoacan. In Arizona, military veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley has mustered a small paramilitary group to stop Mexico’s cartels in an area south of Tucson, known as Cocaine Alley. In that region, the outmanned U.S. Border Patrol has basically abandoned the terrain to the drug smugglers. In Mexico, a small-town surgeon leads a citizen uprising against the cartel that has terrorized and bloodied the community for years.

Filmmaker Heineman vaults us into a true heart of darkness.  Images of decapitated heads, beatings and agonizing gun fights assault the senses. Amid the carnage, we see that the clear-cut line separating good from evil has become murkier and more twisted.

While there’s no minimizing the valor and skill of the filmmaker, credit also goes to his talented co-cinematographer, Matt Porwoll, for capturing the mayhem and malice in the lands ravaged by the cartels. Similarly, the crisp cuts of the editing team and the stark smudges of the music (particularly a plaintive trumpet) convey the desperation and moral squalor of the situation.

A & E IndieFilms

Director: Matthew Heineman

Producers: Mathew Heineman, Tom Yellin

Cinematographers: Matthew Heineman, Matt Porwoll

Music: H. Scott Salinas, Jackson Greenberg

Editors: Matthew Hamachek, Matthew Heineman, Bradley J. Ross, Pax Wassermann

Sales agent: Cinetic Media, John Sloss

No rating, 98 minutes