For the past 10 years, directors Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Torro and Alejando González Iñárritu have been at the forefront of a remarkable renaissance in Spanish-language filmmaking—and now, with Miss Bala, Gerardo Naranjo has joined them.
What a wide-eyed girl his protagonist starts off as. The film opens in the bedroom of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), where magazine cutouts, pinups and glam shots of friends have been optimistically hung on crumbling walls. Laura’s hopes for escaping the squalor are pinned on winning the Miss Baja California pageant. “What does the winner get?” Laura’s friend Suzu asks. “To sleep with one of those old, rich guys,” Laura says.
The opening scenes show what several pageant contestants later fatuously point out, that Mexico’s beauty, in particular that of Baja California, has been unfairly overshadowed by recent drug wars. This doesn’t last. In celebration of a callback, Suzu takes Laura to the Millennium Club, which is little more than a derelict warehouse whose patrons are brutish policemen and whose bouncers fail at what should be Bouncing 101: Disallow mass murder.
An unlikely survivor of a shooting spree at the club, Laura’s prolonged stay of execution at the hands of gang leader Lino (Noe Hernandez) reveals her to be incredibly lucky. Lino shanghais her services, and what follows is a series of poorly executed drug jobs followed by poorly timed escape attempts followed by forgiveness, more drug jobs and more escape attempts. It’s an unrelenting portrait of impressed bovinity, and realism hedges our inevitable frustration. Laura is a teenage girl. Can we really expect criminal cunning?
Lino’s character, however, is trickier. Why, for instance, does a supposedly capable gang leader repeatedly trust an untrustworthy girl? And why, in between drug deals and firefights, does he rig Miss Baja California in her favor? Publicity for his new pawn can’t be a good idea.
In the end, we overlook these potential implausibilities because we’re preoccupied by the plot twists and the anticipation of gunsmoke. Miss Bala is an action movie with a feel of documentary realism. “We’re fearless,” say Lino’s battle-ready men, and the line is repeated with such authenticity that Naranjo may well have plucked it from the streets.
An epilogue tells us cartels in the country have committed over 36,000 murders since 2006, and you sympathize with how helpless some Mexicans must feel. When Lino first lets Laura go, it’s night in the desert and, for no apparent reason, she soon returns. In daylight you see why. She was on the ocean’s edge. There was nowhere else to go.
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