"The word 'vigilante' has been given a bad name by the media," grouses volunteer border guard Tim Foley, a recovered meth addict now leading a militia in the Arizona brush. And so Matthew Heineman's astonishing documentary Cartel Land invites two vigilantes, Foley and Michoacán doctor José Mireles, to defend themselves, while defending their towns from drug violence. For Mireles, the war is immediate: The Knights Templar gang beheaded his neighbors, and he'd rather die fighting than cower before their blade. He raises a ragtag army that liberates villages from cartel rule, Heineman chasing behind to capture their frightening shootouts.
When the real Mexican army demands Mireles hand over his guns, the citizens revolt. Watching grandmothers face down the military trucks, we might be tempted to hail Mireles as a hero. But Cartel Land is interested in how idealism becomes corrupt. As both infantries grow, their leaders lose control of their own message. Foley allows in racists who vocalize the subtext beneath his crusade. Mireles's judgment calls are life-and-death. If the police won't imprison the vengeful murderers, should his Autodefensas execute them on the spot? Heineman smartly forces the audience to decide when -- or if -- the well-meaning doctor goes wrong, implicating us in his guilt. But here, even crime is beautiful. Heineman's footage of meth cooks has the eerie smoke-swirling wonder of Macbeth's witches making mischief. The drugmakers admit they learned their technique from an American father and son, both chemists, who came south to teach them the recipe. How can Foley and Mireles fight that?