With the blistering firecracker that is “Miss Bala,” next-gen Mexican director and AFI grad Gerardo Naranjo delivers on the promise of such well-respected early pics as “Drama/Mex” and “I’m Gonna Explode,” revealing them as dry runs for this “Scarface”-scary depiction of south-of-the-border crime run amok. Presenting an explosive gang war through the eyes of a beauty pageant contender haplessly sucked into its morass, the pic could easily land Naranjo his choice of Hollywood projects — assuming he cares to head in that direction — as well as distribution in the U.S. and abroad.
A kindred spirit to “Maria Full of Grace” in the way it relies on a naif’s Dante-like descent into an increasingly hellish world, “Miss Bala” centers on first-time actress Stephanie Sigman, a fetching former model who plays Laura Guerrero, a teen beauty vying for the title of Miss Baja California. As debuts go, the part is every bit as demanding as the role that earned Catalina Sandino Moreno an Oscar nom, though Sigman’s perf isn’t quite on the same level; while she looks plenty intimidated by events, she doesn’t really provide the same window into what’s at stake for the character.
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For that, “Miss Bala” depends on Naranjo’s assured direction, which observes Laura’s treacherous path at a cool, arm’s-length intensity. What begins with a low-key farewell, as Laura leaves her family behind and ventures into Tijuana for a long-shot chance at notoriety, grows inexorably more dangerous after a wrong-place, wrong-time run-in with a group of heavily armed thugs from “The Star,” a gang dedicated to retaliating against local politicians’ crackdown on drugs.
Laura and best friend Suzu are partying with a bunch of American DEA agents when a handful of masked thugs show up with machine guns and begin perforating the partygoers. The sequence marks just one of several virtuoso set pieces, each of which Naranjo captures in a single, breathtaking shot. Though it sounds flashy, the helmer isn’t showing off; rather, he frames nearly the entire movie this way, eschewing traditional coverage for a smooth, Steadicam-driven style that nearly always maintains a level-headed distance from the action, even if the scene in question is a Michael Mann-worthy city-street shootout between gun runners and heavily armed cops.
Laura survives the targeted attack on the DEA, but loses touch with Suzu in the process, holding out hope that her friend somehow escaped alive. When she turns to a local cop for help, Laura quickly learns the extent of “The Star’s” influence: The corrupt police officer delivers her directly into the hands of the men who pulled off the hit. Their leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez, in a perf that conveys menace without resorting to the typical Latin criminal stereotype), takes a perverse liking to Laura. Although you sense he wouldn’t hesitate to snuff her at any moment, Lino enlists Laura to run dangerous errands. As reward, he pulls strings with the pageant, arranging for her to win the crown (the film’s play-on-words title, “Miss Bala,” translates to “Miss Bullet”).
Despite her considerable beauty, Laura isn’t particularly intelligent or resourceful in circumstances that clearly call for some very careful navigating. Her behavior is more consistent with that of a frightened animal, constantly trying to escape without thinking through what she’ll do once free. She’s repeatedly recaptured and inexplicably forgiven, only to find her involvement with the gang getting even more perilous.
Lino wants the General dead, for instance, which means that arranging for Laura to win works out in his favor, since she can count on a private audience with the officer — the perfect chance for Lino to stage an elaborate execution. Considering the goals Laura sets for herself at the beginning of the picture, the idea of her coronation scene packs a haunting quality far more damning of modern-day Mexican corruption than any of the film’s more violent outbursts.
The ironies are myriad throughout “Miss Bala,” as in another stunning single-shot setup where a white limousine passes through a shot in which Tijuana lies smoldering in the background. Naranjo challenges us to keep up with the narrative, expecting us to put together the elaborate war unfolding beyond the limits of Laura’s comprehension.
Though light on music, the pic achieves just the right uneasy effect through Pablo Lach’s careful sound design, which makes even silences sound ominious. Fellow AFI alum Tobias Datum (who supplied Naranjo’s last two features with much of their vivacity) isn’t with him here, but award-winning Hungarian lenser Matyas Erdely helps the director bring a measure of blood-chilling control to the whole horrific affair, elevating the entire aesthetic in the process.