Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
Carrying her dress in a plastic Target bag, her days-old nail polish chipping, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) seems an unlikely contestant for the Miss Baja pageant, but though it’s clear her naïve aspirations are shortly to be dashed, the method is unexpected. “Bala,” you see, is slang for “bullet.” Separated from her friend after cartel kingpin Lino (Noe Hernandez) raids a club—macho drug cops with alleged pageant pull hold court behind a CD-string curtain in the back room—she gets into a parked squad car to tell her story. The cop, slightly out of focus in the foreground, seems twitchy; we jump along with Laura when the car starts moving, and aren’t surprised when, all in the same take, she’s delivered to Lino. Over the single weekend in which the film transpires, Lino enters Laura in Miss Baja, in which she competes between doomed flights to her family, a border run for info and ammo, shootouts and revenge attacks on DEA agents, and a showdown with the smarmy regional head of the Army.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mexico’s drug wars is the cowed complicity of a populace with a gun to its head; Sigman embodies the allegory by reacting gravely, weepily or with rabbity panic during rising-star director Gerardo Naranjo’s well-choreographed, action-filled takes. Children of Men is a close comp, though Miss Bala’s slow car chases through real traffic feel more grounded (still, there’s something magisterial in the oh-so-tactful tilts-up, which keep moments of brutality or sexual menace just out of frame, though present on the soundtrack). Naranjo keeps us as disoriented and tense as Laura, sometimes with the destabilizing entry into the frame of bullets or cars, and sometimes by telling us even less than Laura knows—to set up a punishing climactic revelation, for instance. Despite the genuine conscientiousness of Mexico’s foreign-film Oscar entry, the lingering impression of all this horrible inevitability, so grippingly well-directed, is that everything that happens in Miss Bala happens not because of clearly communicated systemic social problems, but rather so that we might be awestruck by the doomy gravitas with which everything fits into place.
Opens January 20