Rating: 4/5Roaring its story to life from the hard sparks of the ongoing Mexican drug wars, Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala demonstrates how easily an unremarkable life can slip into pure dismay. The film opens on a wall that is layered with magazine clippings of fashion shoots and stars of such international stature that only a single name is needed, such as Madonna and Shakira. Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) looks at herself in a foggy mirror before heading out to go and enter the Miss Baja beauty pageant. It is presumably the last time she will gaze into a reflective surface and recognize whom she sees.
After gaining a place in the competition, Laura joins her friend for a celebration in a backroom club and trouble literally drops down from the ceiling. After a brutal gang hit takes place, Laura is pulled into the web of Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), the leader of a particularly vicious and powerful group of drug runners. Without overt explanation, Lino draws Laura into their world and their work, promising her some level of protection and support in return. In actuality, he’s taking serene pleasure from all the different ways he can assert his power over her, something the film presents with careful study. He’s no frothing mob boss monster, but he’s assuredly a man made fearless by always getting what he wants, even when he’s under fire.
The closing title card that plainly details some of the colossal damage of the drug wars – over 36,000 people between 2006 and 2011 who can reasonably be listed as casualties – makes it clear that Naranjo wants to expose the havoc being caused. His screenplay (co-credited to Mauricio Katz) doesn’t stoop to didactic hammering at the problem. Instead, it finds a novel avenue in by focusing on the young woman who becomes an unwilling figure right in the midst of it. The unfamiliar methodology lends a sense of unpredictability to the entire film. While it may seem odd that she’s squired directly from the tumult of street battles to still participate in the pageant, it also serves to emphasize that horrific violence and masquerades of normalcy exist side by side, both jostling for the same real estate. Besides, when there’s no shortage of salacious, hedonistic desire on both sides of the ongoing conflict’s dividing line, it can be handy to have a beauty queen on the payroll.
Naranjo tends to favor long takes that employ intricate staging, but it never seems fussy. The chaos onscreen smacks of highly fraught reality, and one of the film’s great strengths is the way it conveys that danger can spring up suddenly and wholly unpredictably in this environment. The camera tilts and pans and takes in as much of it as it can bear, like a wandering eye. It calls to mind the calm, mobile, highly observant visual framing of Jonathan Demme, albeit a far less jittery version of it. There’s a naturally immersive quality to the approach, although I get the sense that Naranjo is a little less interested in that than he is in demonstrating the ways that thoughtful camera movement can effectively take the place of editing room heroics. Cutting from shot to shot in an especially kinetic sequence is the easiest approach, which arguably means it’s also the least interesting approach.
Sigman does excellent work in a deeply tricky role. From early on in the film, she is pressed into a place that virtually requires her to internalize her emotions. Any flash of spirit or whirling ingenuity can get her killed, and much of the performance is therefore structured around all the different ways she can look downwards and hope she escapes notice. It’s like a prolonged depiction of how devastated shell shock can seep in gradually, as deep and permanent as spilled oil invading the cracks between the floorboards. With few overt, sensationalized moments to play, Sigman still develops an empathetic character – an effective conduit into the social turmoil Naranjo shares. A bejeweled tiara is the least of the accolades that she deserves.