Like the dangerous pageant queen that it follows, "Miss Bala" depicts Mexico as a creature whose violent and dangerous tendencies are hidden by a slick veneer of apparent beauty. Treating an exploitation movie-style plot to the gravitas and visual polish of an art house film, director Gerardo Naranjo follows his tiara-wearing heroine through gunfights and drug raids, offering us to a peek at the excitement, horror, and desolation of Mexico’s drug war through her conflicted eyes.
The film opens on Laura Guerrero, who we follow (in extremely long takes composed from behind her back, in the style of the Dardenne brothers or Darren Aronofsky’s last couple of films) as she and her friend Suza try to earn spots in the Miss Baja beauty contest. They do have help, of course - at a party with a few police officers, Suza says "they have connections" that can get them in the pageant.
That party provides Naranjo with an opportunity to leverage a breathtaking set piece that serves as the film’s high point. While in the bathroom, a group of drug runners sneak into the building, prepared to execute everyone inside. The camera hangs on Laura, first hiding in the bathroom, then as she navigates her way through bullets to escape the building, in excruciatingly long shots that add to the overtones of chaos and despair. The scene is so good it holds the rest of the film back: it’s as if Naranjo peaked and cemented his central metaphor within the first fifteen minutes, then spent the rest of the film reiterating it.
But still, the gunfight is a marvel of intricate blocking. He executes it without ever resorting to handheld camerawork, or ever sacrificing the carefully prepared geography of the scene. Unfortunately, the long shot aesthetic is never again used with as much inspiration as it is in here.
Instead, it seems to be a crutch holding up the shoddy acting of his lead, Stephanie Sigman. She seems to have very little experience; and Naranjo spends his time on long takes of her back, hands, and pretty much everything other than her face. During the aforementioned sequence it’s invigorating, but in the quieter character moments it feels like a cheat. It’s like he’s denying us a chance to even emotionally connect with Laura.
Perhaps Naranjo’s aim was to use her as an audience surrogate, a blank slate through which international viewers could experience the horrors and hopelessness of being trapped within the Mexican drug wars. But instead, her character appears underdeveloped, and her one-note acting (giving the same agape look of despair in every scene, even employing the ’one tear rolls down the eye’ dramatic trick repetitively) becomes almost unbearable over the course of the 113-minute runtime. But it does, at least, explain his visual style: Sigman could have never pulled this role off (not even to the mediocre extent she does here) had it been shot in a conventional manner.
However, that’s not to generalize against the performances. On the contrary, Noe Hernandez (as Lino, the gangster who raids the nightclub in that first set piece and continually hooks up with Laura for ’favors’ both business and personal) is intensely sleazy here, scary and repulsive with his constant leery looks. He’s got major presence, and is somehow even more effective when simply staring than he is when reciting drug runner dialogue. I was shocked to find out that this is his first feature film; keep an eye on this guy.
But despite his presence, the main plot of the film just never truly takes off. Laura comes in and out of Lino’s control, constantly witnessing gunfights and robberies from the fringe of the setting. By the end of the film it becomes an inadvertent annoyance - all the action occurring off-screen is clearly thanks to lack of budget, and Naranjo never again reaches the powerful anarchy of the first raid. Everything following it is a disappointment, and with the long takes adding little, it’s hard not to leave the film dejected by the promise it originally showed.