Carrying her dress in plastic Target bag and sporting chipped, days-old nail polish, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) seems an unlikely contestant for the Miss Baja pageant, but the way in which her naïve aspirations are rudely interrupted is unexpected indeed. “Bala,” you see, means “bullet.” Lau is reluctantly joining her friend at a club, where macho drug cops with alleged pull at the pageant hold court in an exclusive back room with cinderblock walls and strings of CDs, when it’s raided by a drug cartel—kingpin Lino (Noe Hernandez) finds her cowering in the bathroom, and lets her leave before they open fire. Trying to find her friend the next day, she approaches a cop in a parked squad car to ask after her friend, and gets in to tell her story—the cop, slightly out of focus in the foreground of the shallow widescreen frame, seems twitchy, and we jump along with Laura when the car starts moving, and aren’t necessarily surprised when, all in the same take, she’s delivered to Lino, who’s taken an interest in her.
Over the rest of the film—which encompasses a single weekend—Lio enters her into the Miss Baja pageant, in which she competes in between doomed attempts to flee and return to her family, naturally held hostage by the cartel, and is conscripted by Lino to drive for him, to make a run to the US for info and ammo, and to ride alongside during shootouts with the cops, revenge attacks on American DEA agents, and a showdown with the smarmy regional head of the Army.
The film is, in other words, a metaphor for perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mexico’s ongoing drug war: the continual cowed complicity of a populace with a gun to its head. Sigman looks alternately grave, rabbity-panicked, weepy, or held together with masking tape in her long close-ups; she mostly reacts, which is all she can do, during Naranjo’s long, complicated, often action-filled takes—Children of Men is a point of comparison, but Miss Bala’s slow car chases through real traffic and tracks through rooms of a one-story house are in a more grounded register (though there’s something magisterial in the many oh-so-tactful tilts up to keep moments of brutality or sexual menace just below the frame, but present on the soundtrack). The entries into the frame of bullets, cars, and people is choreographed to destabilizing effect, as is the narrative—we’re kept disoriented and tense, to align our perspective with Laura’s, though to keep us off-balance Naranjo actually has to sometimes tell us less than she knows, for maximum shock value and also for the punch of revelation that comes at the climax (with a nice bit of cynical symmetry).
Naranjo, by many lights one of the world’s rising filmmakers, seemed effusive, intelligent, and genuinely concerned at his press conference—his film is certainly thoughtfully conceived, and so well-made, but as often happens when a filmmaking virtuoso takes it upon himself to dramatize horrible inevitability and victimhood, the lingering impression is that everything is happening this way not because things in Mexico are hella fucked up right now, but rather that we might be awestruck by the doomy gravitas with which everything fits into place.