Things are not rosy in Cartel Land. Not on this side of the Arizona and Mexico border, nor in the Mexican state of Michoacán. This documentary supplements its tale of vigilante groups with occasional graphic forensic photos of the result of drug wars. Additionally some of the cinema vérité camerawork seems dangerous when it catches the eruption of a full-on firefight with assault rifles. You almost expect the lens to fall sideways to the ground, like the obviously dead cameraman in The Battle of Algiers (1966).
Cartel Land moves between parallel stories taking its time to establish life on both sides of the border. Cartel Land starts out with a group of free-lance meth manufactures deep in the heart of Mexico. Instead of some high tech Breaking Bad set up these men are baking their product in the middle of the night, in the middle of the woods, using handkerchiefs wrapped around their faces rather than gas masks.
There’s a sharp contrast between Tim Foley, leader of the Arizona Border Recon and Dr. José Mireles who heads the Autodefensas. The latter group definitely has a more righteous stance since they are literally in a civil war with the Knights Templar cartel, taking over Michoacán territory town by town, often with violent results. The ABR are also heavily armed and ready to put their finger on the trigger but they mostly patrol the border with night gear and turn their prisoners over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Constant shots reveal the night illuminated by fire, night vision, lightning or time-lapse photography that moves the stars across the screen in a fanning motion. It’s pretty clear that there’s more political, military and police corruption south of the border yet the motives of the American participants aren’t far removed from citizens acting out a kind of Charles Bronson Death Wish fantasy. If you fear something take a bath in it seems to be the mantra of all involved and many are drenched.
Even when the movie ends you’re shaking your head and the sense of injustice in which no good deed goes unpunished.
— Michael Bergeron