Bleak, gritty, despairing (and quite literally), dark -- yet always gracefully orchestrated by director Gerardo Naranjo through twists and turns in a series of fluid, mobile, single-take tracking shots that call to mind the Brian de Palma of “Snake Eyes”, “Miss Bala” is a disturbing, visceral journey into the chaotic inferno that is the criminal underworld of modern day Mexico. It’s one of the most powerful and suspenseful foreign language thrillers to emerge in years yet manages to also pass muster as a state-of-the-nation allegory, while never taking its foot off the tension pedal for a single second.
The word ‘Bala’ is apparently Mexican for bullet, and the UK DVD menu screen compounds a possible mistaken perception (apt to be encouraged in the minds of those who aren’t aware of the word’s ironic placement in the title) that the film is some sort of wish fulfilment feminist empowerment action movie fantasy, by lengthening the film’s moniker to read: “Miss Bala: The Bullet Queen” (an augmentation I can find mentioned nowhere else in publicity on the film). In fact, the primary emotion the work of Naranjo and first-time actress Stephanie Sigman manages to compel with its subversion of the techniques which govern the usual workings of classic action movie aesthetics, is not so much an enjoinder to ritual gun tottin’ sassiness but an evocation of the same abject fear, panic and powerlessness that rapidly overcomes the central character, as we are thrust along with her head-long into a horribly real-seeming series of out of control situations in which rapidly escalating danger is immanent at every turn, and which offer no sure means of escape.
Consequently, the film picks up a fair helping of criticism in some quarters for the passivity with which Sigman’s character greets each new twist in the tightening noose that seems to be her rapidly irretrievable fate. Some viewers watch simply waiting for the expected moment when the bikini clad beauty contestant grabs an Uzi and starts plugging away at the assorted drug lords, corrupt DEA cops and abusive, Government-backed Mexican military personnel who turn her life upside down throughout the course of the picture -- but that moment turns out to be one that never comes: it’s made pretty plain from the start of her unwanted, unplanned association with the limping, short, thickly moustachioed drug cartel boss Lino Valdez (a quietly menacing Noe Hernandez) that there is no way out of this mess for Laura Guerrero (Sigman) -- a likable, kind of good-looking young woman, who lives quietly with her little brother and aging dad in a poverty stricken encampment on the edge of Tijuana on the San Diego border. Within a short time of making her acquaintance, this ruthless criminal overlord finds out her name, her address, her phone number and her occupation; there’s simply no possibility of her doing anything else other than exactly what she’s told from that point on, or her life and that of her family, and everyone else she knows, is at an end.
She starts the film as just an ordinary girl with ordinary dreams of finding fame and fortune and escape from the drabness of her workaday life; indeed, the only colour in the dingy house she shares with her two male relatives comes as a result of a haphazard collage of magazine pages stuck up on Laura’s bedroom wall, depicting commercial glamour down the ages from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe; from True Blue-era Madonna to modern-day Manga prints of exactly the kind of fearless gun-wielding assassin some sections of “Miss Bala’s” audience long for her to be later in the film. Laura and her best friend enter the Miss Baja California Beauty Contest being held in Tijuana for a giggle, but secretly harbour dreams that the cheesy televised extravaganza will catapult them to nationwide fame and from there to financial fortune and escape from the dead-end life fate otherwise seems to have in store for them. Unfortunately, an unlucky instance of wrong place, wrong time places Laura on-site when the murderous Estrella cartel stage an armed attack on a popular night spot frequented by DEA officials and rival drug cartel members. She gets separated from her friend during the ensuing melee but manages to escape, just barely, with her life. Still worried the next morning for her missing friend, she does what you would think to be the sensible thing, and tells a police patrolman exactly what has happened, and from that moment is thrust into a world of terror when the dubious authority figure takes her straight to the gang and back into the clutches of the ruthless Valdez …
The powerlessness of the individual in the kind of semi-lawless society that is principally governed by corrupt officials and heavily armed murderers financed by the trade in narcotics becomes the theme of the movie, and there is a real sense of anger and moral outrage discernible as Mátyás Erdély’s camera forces us to enter, as near as possible, the same space as is occupied by Laura – who clearly functions as the Mexican ‘Everyman’ here – as she is manipulated and eventually faced with condemnation from all sides. Almost for the entire length of the movie Naranjo places the camera at eye-level with Laura’s point of view, either just behind her head or alongside her; sometimes we even become her as the camera’s field of vision takes up her POV completely. At all times we get the sense of being slapped right in the middle of the action: machine gun fire pings past ‘our’ head; an attack could come at us from any quarter. There is a sense in which the visual aesthetic mimics that of a video game, except for the fact that the sense of powerlessness at being unable to affect the situation through action is exactly the feeling we’re meant to take from the experience. Laura’s problems really start when Valdez decides he can use her to deliver a message to the DEA in the form of three bodies from the previous evening’s shootings stuffed in the trunk of a car she is made to drive and park outside some downtown Government offices. Valdez agrees to find her missing friend if she will do this for him, but of course she has little choice in the matter either way. From there, the drug lord decides to amuse himself by getting her into the beauty contest she’s by now flunked, and fixing things so that she actually wins it, regardless of the fact that her experiences by this point have left her virtually a victim of post-traumatic stress and unable to even so much as utter a word let alone raise a beaming smile for an audience: for Laura has reluctantly come to realise that this tawdry vehicle, the one-time means of her escape from poverty, the thing on which she’d pinned all her former hopes, has been made the ultimate symbol of her enslavement to a violent, corrupt order.
Laura’s world goes from bad to worse as the terrified girl is forced to let herself get ever-deeply more embroiled in the dodgy cross-border dealings Valdez forces her to partake in, and then a revenge plot against a Drug Enforcement Officer who was previously responsible for the deaths of several members of the Estrella gang -- all of which soon devolves into a full-scale street shoot-out that makes an ordinary Mexican underpass feel like a concrete battlefield in a third world warzone. Almost throughout we have the queasy undercurrent of threat that either some form of physical violence or sexual assault will be visited upon her at any second on a whim of a group of violent, sociopathic people whose moods shift like the wind; but despite the heroine’s vulnerability, and her inability to fight back in any tangible sense, there is undoubtedly a feminist statement being made in the way the film manages to draw parallels in its imagery between Laura’s ruthless exploitation by the coercive Valdez (when, for example, he forces her to strip so that he can tightly gaffer-tape a constricting corset of hundred dollar bills to her torso as part of an exchange drop) and the humiliating hoops the beauty contest hopefuls are forced to jump through for the amusement mainly of old men.
The two worlds of corruption come together when Laura discovers the real reason Valdez was so keen to have her win the contest in the first place, and she finds out that part of the normal price of escape from obscurity for ‘winners’ like her is being expected to pleasure various members of the political establishment. The kitschy glamour and glitz of the pageant is just a shiny wrapping that veils a grim nexus of exploitative power relations. There’s literally nowhere to go for release from this web of corruption; where once in the beginning Laura’s sense of identity was predicated on her ascending the heights of a world of fashion and fame, by the end she has become redefined for both herself and for society at large, through the same media selling these dreams, as the sort of criminal who is part of the country’s problem rather than one more example of its victims of crime and of social circumstance. There’s not much hope being offered in this bleak message -- as opposed to the fantasy dreams of rebellion routinely constructed in contemporary post-feminist action flicks -- but “Miss Bala” is a powerful counterblast to social complacency that co-opts the kinetic mechanics of the action flick to construct a compelling and memorable nightmare image of present day Mexican society, with a powerful driving energy operating at its centre and an affecting performance from its striking young lead actress. The new UK DVD release from Metrodome is basic-as-it-gets bare bones material, but the film comes highly recommended.
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