A giant metaphor for Mexico and the dismay that plagues the country, Miss Bala, the new action-drama from Mexican writer-director Gerardo Naranjo, is visceral eye candy with steady performances and a seamless marriage of sight and sound. Yet with its bleak vision and apathetic treatment of undeveloped characters, the film falls short of the early acclaim it has received on the festival circuit.
Set in Tijuana and inspired by a real incident in Mexico, the story centers around Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a poor, lanky and yet strangely beautiful young woman who desperately wants to be a beauty queen. But in a corrupt world where crime and violence have free rein, her aspirations become thwarted when she finds herself in the middle of a drug war after surviving a bloodbath at a local disco.
The experience inextricably ties Laura to the crime and a gang of ruthless criminals who take control of her life. Led by Nino (Noe Hernandez in a carefully understated role), a reserved and mustached warlord, these pitiless men force Laura to work for them, running drugs across the border, while fixing the Miss Baja California pageant so that she wins.
Once set in motion, the plot moves with an urgency that rarely lets up. The action and suspense that result from Laura’s ignorance and the reality of her situation creates a tension that engulfs the viewer from start to finish. Naranjo, who co-wrote the script with Mauricio Katz, knows how to pace a story (though he doesn’t always succeed in fleshing out the characters within it).
The same tension that propels the film forward extends into the action sequences. Captured in long, steady takes and at a distance with an elevated scope, these sequences mishmash the static mise-en-scenes with sudden bursts of violence. As a result, the bloody shootouts between the gangs and local authorities generate tense action and heavy pathos, making Miss Bala a visual spectacle.
Furthering the juxtaposition of forms, Naranjo seeds among the action sequences several slower, more graceful moments that retain their own kind of grandeur. From the opening sequence of Laura at home with her loving family to a strangely romantic scene on the beach, such moments shine like tiny glimmers of life and hope in a world void of those things.
Of all the layers and contrast within Miss Bala, its use of sound proves most distinguished. Naranjo, working with sound designers Pablo Lach and Salvador Félix, possesses a unique sensibility for how sound works against the image. As Peter Debruge of Variety notes, “The pic achieves just the right uneasy effect through Pablo Lach’s careful sound design, which makes even silences sound ominous.” The overlapping noise of violent gunfire and Laura’s whispers carries with it a subtext regarding human experience in Mexico.
However true, this subtext unfortunately is ultimately a flaw that burdens Naranjo’s film, particularly in how it affects the character of Laura. In portraying Mexico as dark and twisted and inserting a helpless young woman at the center, he makes a bold and, perhaps, true statement about the state of the country, as well as its future. Naranjo portrays Mexico as being on a slippery slope toward anarchy.
Such a dismal narrative and, more specifically, the role played by Laura in it, does more than just paint Mexico as a hell hole, a lost cause for which its people and proponents have abandoned all hope. It also creates a protagonist whose victimization and passivity distance her. As Laura becomes numb toward her dire circumstances, it becomes impossible to see what she thinks and feels, which in turn makes it difficult to connect with her and invest emotionally in the film.
In a move that could be viewed as evidence of a bottomless cynicism, Naranjo certainly intends to depict Laura in this manner, and Sigman plays her with sincerity. Laura’s naivety and cowardly nature feel so real that, at times, they become maddening. In the end, this choice—a bleakness that affects more than the depth of the characters—keeps Miss Bala from transcending its otherwise virtuoso aesthetics and elevating Naranjo from filmmaker to auteur.
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Writer: Gerardo Naranjo, Mauricio Katz
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela
Release Date: Jan. 20, 2012