Movie Review: Miss Bala
Reviewed: 4 February 2012
jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)
Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero in the haunting Miss Bala, a film that could stand along with Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, Osama, and Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles as a shocking, damning indictment of a male-dominated society that objectifies and punishes women, this time against the backdrop of the violent world of the Tijuana-California border. Things go from bad to worse for Laura as she finds herself at a party in the city that turns into a bloody massacre; her care for her missing friend causes her to stumble into the hands of the cartel responsible, and things continue to fall apart.
Overwhelmingly, the film addresses smuggling money across the border, smuggling bullets, the use of cell phones and communication among the cartel, the way anyone and anything can be bought, as well as direct street clashes, home invasion, accepting cash, losing one's soul, and protecting one's family through self-sacrifice. Impressively, I felt that at no point was direct Gerardo Naranjo cramming this film full of issues or events; things spiraled out of control in a logical and devastating way. The violence is scary; the moments of silence between captive and captor, terrifying.
Opening shots obscure Laura's face, and the director intentionally plays with shadow and light, spatial arrangement with items that block characters from view. A central idea that director Gerardo Naranjo addresses is the pageantry and artificiality of both the beauty contest world (Laura, early on, applies to be Miss Baja) and the drug vs. police world (a kingpin strings up a body after filming a DEA agent's last words and running him down with his truck with stolid theatricality; press conferences are staged with an attention to lighting, make-up, and body language). Naranjo is wrestling with big ideas in a very challenging way: Do we expect a certain performance from the players in the drug war, the same way that we expect certain aspects in a beauty pageant? Are both sides playing a part, providing different illusions? In Naranjo's Mexico as it seems to be ripped from the headlines, violence and exploitation are rampant; there is no way for Laura to escape when police are corrupt, family are poor, her beauty seems to be her only commodity. The final shot could be seen as hopeful (sun is rising), yet it is difficult to see how Laura moves on from all that she's been through. At times, the camera movement and proximity to violence reminded me of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men; it held the same apocalyptic, dangerous feel. Miss Bala is a challenging, fierce film from a director that I'd like to see more from.
A few false notes: the title. I didn't know what it meant and had to ask: Miss Bullet, which is another reminder of the juxtaposition of the pageants and the drug wars. Also, the final title card in the film is supposed to jolt the audience with an awareness of the number of dead in the drug wars since 2004. Such a card is superfluous for anyone who has been paying attention to this film. Clearly, the horrors of the past two hours have underscored all that has been lost and continues to be lost due to a rapacious thirst for drugs north of the border and the furious movement south of it to provide them. No card is needed.