A movie review of “Cartel Land,” a raw and compelling documentary about vigilantes on the Mexico-Arizona border. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Inspired by a Rolling Stone article, “Border Madness,” this raw and compelling (if necessarily incomplete) documentary focuses on the recent battles between drug cartels and vigilantes along the Arizona-Mexico border.

The Americans, with a little cheerleading from Fox News, see themselves as enduring a David-and-Goliath conflict in which they’re never mistaken for Goliath. Their spokesman, Tim “Nailer” Foley, calls them the Arizona Border Recon. Their mission: to keep the drug wars from crossing the border.

The cartels, or Knights Templar, leave a trail of atrocities including beheadings and massacres of whole families, and they evoke an outraged response from Mexican vigilantes who find their way of life threatened.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘Cartel Land,’ a documentary directed by Matthew Heineman. 100 minutes. Rated R for violent disturbing images, language, drug content and brief sexual material. Sundance Cinemas (21+), SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Their leader, Dr. Jose Mireles, or “El Doctor,” attempts to organize a paramilitary group called Auto­defenses. Some very uncomfortable questions are asked.

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Director Matthew Heineman found himself looking at a situation that is rarely black-and-white. What sometimes suggests a non­fiction remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” with peasants and mercenaries forced into battle, is ultimately less than heroic.

“Over the year that I was embedded with both Nailer and El Doctor and their vigilante groups,” said Heineman in a director’s statement, “the more complex the story became: It was partly an ascent of people seeking to fight evil and partly a descent into hell as they took the law into their own hands.”

One of the executive producers on the film is Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, who brought a similar ambiguity to “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“For me,” Heinman said, “it became a timeless story of the conflict between idealism and violence, which has eerie echoes throughout history and across the world today.”