James’s review published on Letterboxd:
“We cooks, we gotta lay low now that we’re part of the government. Us selling drugs, cooking drugs, it doesn’t look right. But it’s always going to happen. It’s just not going to stop, period. It’s a never-ending story”.
Matthew Heineman's boots on the ground approach to exploring the grim reality of the Mexican cartel is a revelatory and thrilling experience that captures the brutality and hopelessness of the situation whilst also imbuing a silent critique of the vigilante forces that oppose the drug gangs.
The film crew ingratiate themselves into two separate vigilante groups on both side of the border, comprised of those who have had enough of the lack of support from governmental forces and have decided to take up arms themselves. The two storylines are cleverly weaved into one cohesive structure, giving the film a sense of scope and whilst cinematically it is conventional for a documentary, there are flourishes of style that draw comparisons to its fictional counterpart from the same year, Sicario that complement the gritty street level camerawork.
It remains purely objective in that viewers are left to form their own opinions simply from the events filmed, though it has clearly been assembled in a way that builds up and then deconstructs these vigilante justice groups. At first they are presented as heroes, taking back towns from the cartel and liberating citizens, but later the cracks begin to show as they are seen gradually and inevitably becoming the very criminals they set out to destroy.
Cartel Land offers an eye-opening and riveting look at a modern day crisis from a perspective never before seen on camera. Often it feels more like watching an action thriller than a documentary, which makes the violence all the more harrowing when the realisation that this isn't fiction returns.