Miss Bala, a thriller-of-sorts from Mexico, concludes with the following note: “The Mexican Drug War has caused the deaths of over 36,000 people between 2006 and 2011.” Those words couldn’t be any more transparently tacked-on. Their presence is understandable: after all, Miss Bala is Mexico’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. But the intentions of (presumably) the producers/money people and those of its young director, the freakishly talented Gerardo Naranjo (Drama/Mex, I’m Going to Explode), are not the same. If those who supplied the means to make Miss Bala were seeking easy relevance, Naranjo is interested primarily in filmmaking, in creating a singular and nerve-jangling experience. The two are, except superficially, at odds.
Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a young Tijuana woman whose dreams of winning a regional beauty pageant are benched when she finds herself in a Patty Hearst situation, minus the part where she becomes sympathetic to, or even particularly aware of, her cartel captors’ plans. As our increasingly trembling, shellshocked hero is jostled between both sides of the law, the two blur into one doughy middle. Cops and criminals use her and abuse her, reducing her to a mere pawn in their obscure games.
That summation could qualify as drug war critique, but the particulars remain intentionally vague. Naranjo and his co-writer, Mauricio Katz, largely keep plot details in the (sometimes literal) dark, a decision mirrored by camerawork that regularly keeps the action off-screen, with whole scenes banged out in one long, often static shot. We rarely leave Laura’s immediate surroundings, and thrice do what could be action scenes occur almost entirely off-screen, as when we witness an ambush mostly from within Laura’s car, the camera pushed in tight on her face as she crouches amidst machine gunfire and shattering glass.
With its slow-motion pace and dispassionate, deliberate camerawork, Miss Bala has been called a thriller by way of Antonioni. That’s true, but it’s Antonioni crossed with a David Lynch-infused horror film, with the soundtrack a dense mix of off-screen action and, in many scenes, a low, menacing hum. Abstract as Miss Bala is, it’s stubbornly grounded in reality, refusing to let itself devolve even an inch into fanboy theatrics. Of the current crop of exciting young filmmakers, Naranjo may be the least show-offy while still being a master stylist.