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Cartel Land is, ostensibly, about the bitter, multi-front morass that is Mexico’s drug war. But filmmaker Matthew Heineman apparently spent months earning the trust of — and eventually remarkable access to — the two main groups he chronicles: an outfit of American militia members patrolling the Arizona border, and a grassroots civilian uprising against the cartels in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The result is something that cuts into far deeper and murkier territory than any mere conflict documentary. There is pride and vanity and human frailty, the blurry line that separates vigilantes from legal institutions, and the delicate, fragile stuff of which law and order and civilization are all made. By the end, Cartel Land breaks free of the limitations of its genre and becomes something vaguely resembling Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The film is actually bookended by a creepy nighttime interview with some cartel meth cookers as they go about their work. They’re a somewhat ragtag group, with echoes of Breaking Bad. But their leader is articulate, with a populist flair for the dramatic: he acknowledges they’re harming people with their drugs, but protests that it’s the only course poverty has left to them. Under different circumstances, he tells Heineman, they’d “travel the world” and have “good clean jobs like you guys.”

“If we start listening to our hearts, we’ll get screwed over.”

It’s both moving and a bit disconcerting, because you can’t tell where the genuine grievance at being misunderstood by the world ends, and the performance begins.

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That same ambiguity informs Heineman’s two central figures. The first is Tim Foley, who heads the aforementioned Arizona militia. He has poise and a compelling backstory. He kicked drug and alcohol addiction, then lost his home and job in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse. He’s also shot through with resentment at the “illegals” he saw working the jobs he wanted. Eventually, he shifted his focus from immigrants jumping the border to the cartels, but he still chafes under accusations of racism. All the while, he and his cohorts dress in camo, shoot their rifles in the air, marinate in military jargon, and Foley himself refers to theirs as a “David and Goliath story.”

“We’re David,” he adds, without a trace of irony.

Jose Manuel Mireles seems more sympathetic at first. A doctor, he’s organized Autodefensas — an armed, grassroots, civilian uprising against the cartels. Like Foley, he asks Heinemann early on how he could be expected to pick any other route than what he did. But Mireles also has better reasons: the cartels control entire towns in Michoacán, brutally murdering whole families when it suits their purposes. One of the most compelling aspects of Cartel Land is the visceral experience of the true absence of effective government or law enforcement.

Mireles also carries himself differently than Foley. His approach is more organic, practical, methodical. Mireles and the Autodefensa move from town to town, liberating each one at a time. New recruits swear to uphold a code so that they don’t become like the criminals they’re fighting, and Mireles calls on the people of the liberated towns to organize their own local government — precisely because it’s not the Autodefensa’s purpose to take power. In what may be the most remarkable sequence in the film, the Mexican army arrives shortly after Mireles and his men have liberated a town, and disarm them. The townspeople then rise up, and effectively force the army to return the Autodefensa’s guns to them.

But there are cracks here, too. As the movement grows, accountability for its members becomes more difficult to maintain. It remains an ad hoc organization with little rigorous training, and you can feel the barely contained rage and violence when Autodefensas members capture various cartel operators. At times, the movement seems more like a fragile cult of personality than a working organization.

Meanwhile, across the border, Heineman’s access to the militias presents us with scenes of such remarkable caricature you can scarcely believe their real. Foley and his men sit around bonfires, watch Fox News, and spout various conspiracy theories about the federal government, along with the occasional blatantly racist rant. Foley watches news reports on Mireles’ movement with admiration, and laments that things are not done in a similar fashion here in the States.

Eventually, Heineman’s camera takes him into more intimate and unnerving territory, as Mireles’ own personal flaws as a human being become clearer. The leader of the Autodefensas proves himself more willing to bend the rules and even kill than initially expected. On the other side of the border, Foley and his men show more restraint than the earlier scenes implied they were capable of. The lines between the government, the cartels, and the Autodefensas all blur, as old alliances breakdown and new ones are created. The impetus to do “what must be done” becomes increasingly protean, free-floating, purposeless.

During it all, Heineman’s camera remains observant and his cinematography elegant. His choices of material and editing shift subtly between confirming stereotypes and suspicions, and then gradually undermining them so slowly you scarcely see it happen. By the end, we are confronted not so much with a war, as with a kind of seething social eruption, without anchor or foundation or clarity.

Cartel Land ends where it began, with the anonymous meth cooker in the brush — now a confirmed member of the Autodefensas, a government employee, and a cartel operator all at once — predicting an interminable cycle of the same violence, resistance and corruption, forever.

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