Cartel Land Movie Review
Cartel Land is an in-depth documentary that looks at life in Mexico--specifically a part of the country where the federal government, drug cartels and vigilante groups vie for the right to imprint their brand of justice on the general population. The question is: does the documentary tell us anything new?
The doc, directed by Matthew Heineman, largely follows a vigilante group called Autodefensas, a coalition of citizens who have risen up to fight against the violent cartels that have destroyed their homes and left them in a perpetual state of fear.
Heineman is given tremendous access to the individuals involved in the Autodefensas group, and the camera takes us into their inner workings—as well as gun battles with wanted cartel members. What results is a gritty portrayal of a land where there is very little law, and a thoughtful look at what seems to happen to so many “good guys” in a place like this: the line between them and the “bad guys” gets incredibly blurry.
The documentary is well made and interesting, though the first half is notably better than the second half, which shifts gears to focus on political pressures from the government and away from the cartels. It’s all important... just not as interesting.
And ultimately, does Cartel Land tell us anything we don’t already know? Mexico is corrupt and parts of the country are operated by the cartels. Groups of citizens have formed militias to fight the cartels, but they too can be corrupt. And the federal police are just as bad. None of this is exactly new information.
In fairness, Heineman does a good job telling a story, and his on-the-ground approach breathes some fresh air into what could have been a tale told from afar. Cartel Land is worth seeing, but it’s far from groundbreaking.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.