'Miss Bala': Pawn in the Drug Game
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Directed and otherwise shaped by Gerardo Naranjo (who co-wrote the film and edited it) "Miss Bala" hinges on the Spanish wordplay in its title. Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman, an ex-model) is the oldest child of a motherless home and intends to do something about her modest circumstance in Baja California, Mexico, by entering the Miss Baja beauty pageant. It's a decision that pulls her into the world of drugs and money and power, bounced between American DEA agents, Mexican police, border-crossing gangs and other interested parties all while she's trying to find the right dress and smile the right smile.
Bullets -- or, in Spanish, balas -- fly, and the true plot here is that of a pawn being dragged across a geopolitical chess board by many coarse and crimson-stained hands until she literally becomes a queen. Unlike Soderbergh's "Traffic," "Miss Bala" doesn't hop and skip around the war on (and, also, the more bullet-slinging war over) drugs between characters or sides or ideologies. The film, and the camera, focus on Laura, literally, as the long takes and epic battles and quiet threats of the film all unfold around her.
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Some have complained that Laura (whose last name, which translates to "fighter," or "soldier," serves as another grim joke) is too passive a protagonist -- and, at the same time, when a young woman is confronted by armed killers, what else can she do but comply? Considering that since 2006, 47,000 lives have been lost to drug violence in Mexico, with both demand for those drugs and a substantial number of the guns doing the killing flowing from the U.S., what else can Laura do but play along and hope to live?
Shot with resolute long takes and follow-the-leader cinematography, "Miss Bala" combines that art-house approach to drama -- like the films of the Dardenne Brothers, or selected works by Gus Van Sant -- with big-screen, high-stakes action, as Laura is plunged into the center of horrifying violence. With pitched gun battles (including a dizzying near-war in the streets and another grim assault on a hotel suite) raging, we only see Laura -- and only see, for the most part, what she sees. We can understand her innocent desire to win the contest and improve the lives of her father and brother, but what Naranjo makes clear is that in modern Mexico, no desire is allowed to be innocent for long.
Some will object to the didactic tone of the film's last title card, explaining and enumerating Mexican lives lost to the drug war, finding it too heavy-handed. Considering that those 47,000 deaths have done nothing to change drug policy or the methods of Mexican and American law enforcement, though, one has to think. The rest of the film is low on statistics and heavy on you-are-there images: Laura having illegal cash taped to her body before being shoved across the border as an unwilling courier, a good-times-and-glamour nightclub turning into a brutal firefight. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély has a keen eye and can keep up with Naranjo's ideas and edits, and serves as an ideal collaborator.
The supporting performances are superb, as we follow Laura as she's being rushed about between condescendingly imperious pageant administrators, brute-force cops, silkily manipulative drug lords and dead-eyed killers. But Sigman's performance is, literally, the film. She's in almost every scene, we see this world through her eyes and she tackles challenges a more experienced actress would stumble on, while still capturing Laura's exhausted slump into acceptance as her overworked adrenal glands go dry and she can only numbly accept the next fresh hell. There's a Mexican saying along the narco frontier, plata o plomo, silver or lead, take a bribe or take a bullet -- and Laura's being offered a chance for everything she wants, in exchange for the realization that the world is a crueler place than she ever imagined and at risk of her life.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.