Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is a tall, long-limbed beauty who feels trapped and unappreciated in her small town outside Mexico City, so she leaves and follows the bright lights and promises of stardom by entering a pageant. The goal is simple. Represent her community, win, and then watch as her life changes for the better.
A single poor decision finds her at a local bar with her girlfriend on the night a group of armed thugs sneak in and mow down most of the party goers. Laura witnesses the assault, and the lead attacker witnesses her. She attempts to report the incident (in a round about way), but she chooses a dirty cop who hands her over to the gang leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez).
And just like that her life is no longer her own. Lino forces her to take part in a crime, but he then rewards her by pulling some strings to get her a spot in the pageant. And so it goes. She’s abused, assaulted and used, again and again, with little in the way of effort to fight back or escape her new fate. She’s a victim, a cog in the bloody wheels of criminal progress, and there’s no turning back.
Tragedies big and small are part of the human condition, and as such they’re an unavoidable part of modern day life. But we in the US have it relatively easy when it comes to the larger scale atrocities. There are tragedies here, no doubt, but only the personal ones occur on a daily basis.
Mexico isn’t nearly as lucky. They may be our immediate neighbor, but they’re worlds apart when it comes to the traumas its citizens visit upon each other. The ongoing drug war continues to lead to thousands of murders and thousands more disappearances while rampant corruption seemingly reveals a populace more interested in personal gain than national pride, unity or protection.
Director/co-writer Gerardo Naranjo has captured a snapshot of his home country here, and the result is at times as immediate and raw as it is unflattering. Mexico is an undeniably dangerous place with a murder rate more than double that of the US, and the film re-enforces that fact through multiple acts of faceless, directionless violence. It isn’t a land of good guys and bad guys. It’s a land of the living and the not yet dead.
But that successfully gritty atmosphere doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It needs to be populated by characters that matter, for better or worse, and it’s there where Miss Bala becomes an empty and barren land.
If Laura is Mexico, a metaphor the film seems to be positing, then Mexico is a continuously passive victim partially to blame for its own predicament. There’s probably a more politically correct way to say that, but the truth remains. And it’s not an issue of Laura deserving this fate (so please, no comments about rape victims and how they dress). It’s a matter of her wearing a hand-written sign labeling her as a victim who refuses to make more than a token effort to escape, fight back or take charge of her own destiny.
It’s infuriating, but even that emotion dissipates rather quickly to be replaced with an unfortunate indifference towards Laura and her detached, dispassionate attitude. Weakness by itself is not a negative character trait, but it’s one that needs a guiding hand if it’s to remain interesting and engaging. Naranjo fails in that regard as he leaves Laura flapping in the wind. Yes, a point is being made with Laura’s attraction to the beauty pageant, but it’s not one relevant enough to warrant all that comes before and after.
His story and protagonist may be one note creations, but Naranjo does showcase strong technical skills that enhance the action and dramatic scenes. His visual style is strongly influenced by the likes of Michael Mann with long shots and takes and a focus on sound as the primary sensory input. One or two gunfight-infused action scenes in particular seem built upon a choreographed cacophony of gunshot cracks and booms that illustrate the scene solely through viewers’ ears. He keeps the focus on Laura instead of the violence around her, and the result trades some degree of visual appeal for an intense immediacy.
Miss Bala has something to say about Mexico’s current state of affairs. Unfortunately, the message is delivered simply and wrapped in an uninteresting package. It’s not quite the least attractive girl winning the pageant, but it’s definitely the one who thinks US Americans should help the US and South America and the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for our children.
The Upside: Interesting and immersive visual style
The Downside: Lead character is a passive waste
On the Side: Miss Bala was Mexico’s official submission for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.