What happens when being in the right place at the right time is also the wrong place at the wrong time? When what saves you could ultimately destroy you? That's the terrifying minefield that the terrific "Miss Bala" navigates in a modern-day Mexico where beauty pageants, politics, police, power and a billion-dollar drug business mingle to deadly effect.
Directed with great verve by Gerardo Naranjo, and the country's Oscar entry in the foreign language category, the film takes on the bloody running turf wars of the narcotics trade from street level. It is seen through the eyes of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), an impoverished young beauty whose dreams and whose life are about to become part of the collateral damage. There is a larger message to be found here, but it never derails the taut vintage thriller that's been constructed.
The film begins on edge with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shooting in the uneasy half-light just before night gives way to day. The shadows don't hide that Laura's house is in deep decline, as is the family inside. Her hopes are plastered on the wall around her bedroom mirror, glossy magazine cutouts of stylish models who exist in a world she can't even imagine. Despite a worried father and an anxious brother, she is soon off to meet a friend in the city to make a run at that distant dream.
Written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz, the film unfolds over the next three days as local girls gather to compete in Baja's state beauty pageant, with its promises of fame and money. What the film captures so effectively is the cultural reality of Mexico's ubiquitous underclass instead — the beauty contest a callous cattle call of nervous hopefuls in cheap dresses and forced smiles.
At a nightclub the first night, where some of its well-connected patrons might "help" on the pageant front, Laura gets caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout, with the terrified girl surviving but seeing too much and, worse, being seen. The filmmakers use Laura's desperate bid to survive to make Mexico's drug crises punishingly personal. Bit by bit, her confidence is eroded, her instincts questioned, beginning with the pageant director who snipes that her hands look like a maid's and ending again and again with the poisonous Lino (Noe Hernandez), the local drug honcho she keeps crossing.
The narrative is unflinching in its tone, and despite the death spiral Laura seems to be on, her predicament is never played for pity. The visual style is equally direct. In the past, the director has tended to experiment, playing with everything from French New Wave to noir, his debut with 2006's "Drama/Mex" included. But here Naranjo keeps the focus tight, the pace fast and the desperation high. By doing so, he has created a film that balances its extremes with its nuance. Bodies, ripped open by machine guns, pile up in gruesome numbers as blood streaks and pools on the sidewalks, bedrooms and dance clubs around Baja. Well executed and riveting, the action is nevertheless what you'd expect a drug war would generate.
The nuance, however, is another story. Hernandez ("Sin Nombre") wears Lino's ruthlessness with the ease of the farm worker clothes he fancies, his occasional flash of humanity delivered with such indifference it hurts. And in a haunting performance, Sigman disappears completely inside Laura's skin, taking her from tentative hope to absolute fear with barely the blink of an always wary eye. Watching her face telegraph helplessness and resignation as she is transformed from an innocent into a mule, money taped to her waist like dynamite — and just as deadly if she's caught — is as unnerving as it is mesmerizing.