There is a Mexican proverb which asserts “a golden cage is still a cage” and this seems a fitting accompaniment to writer / director Gerardo Naranjo’s thrilling and often extraordinary Mexican set anti-fairytale Miss Bala. It’s story follows the unassuming Laura (Stephanie Sigman) whose dreams of winning the local beauty pageant are set against the ugly world of the pervasive criminality rife throughout Mexican society. After a midnight nightclub slaughter Laura finds her subsistent life turned upside down and without meaning at the whim of its enactors. As their hold over her grows she becomes tragically ever more entangled in the criminal underbelly that knows no other treatment than to chew her up and spit her out.
Naranjo’s Mexico is one of dark, bleak corruption, so shallowly hidden it takes Laura merely a slight misstep to fall full blown into the underground nasties of guns, gangs and narcotics. This is a world well beyond her experience and as such beyond her methods of control. Her resulting panicky complicity with the gangs and in particular one leader has the duel effect of advancing and improving those aspirations and achievements she craves while facilitating them in corrupt and unhealthy fashion.
The film’s focus is acutely drawn on Laura. Not once do we witness happenings or emotions outside of her range of sight or feeling. The audience is only kept abreast of the ensuing gang-fighting and subsequent socio-political meltdown through fleetingly overheard conversations, warbling radio chatter or flashes of news reports. In a refreshing manner we are truly only aware of the quantity of information Laura herself is aware of. It’s an arrestingly personal journey anchored by a breakout performance from Sigman who feels at once delicate but resolute, elusive but committed.
It’s striking that despite the memorable abuses of Laura herself and those she witnesses that she remains a passive recipient to them. Her apathetic acceptance makes you wonder whether this new life may in fact be better than her old one. And whether indeed she’s so shaken, so upset by the changes that are befalling her at all. Not only for this puzzle but for the dazzlingly strange detours from the muddy reality – into beauty contest finals and pristine breakfasts – is this film remarkable. However these scenes only serve further to remind how interconnected and deceptively close the worlds of right and wrong are intermingled in contemporary Mexico.
The intimate focus on Laura lends the film a permeating aura of unpredictability as we are both trapped by a lack of knowledge of the wider contextual landscape of Laura’s misery and consumed by a desire to see her relinquished from it safely, at least in the beginning. And this unpredictability through being kept in the dark instils every scene with a taut, tense and ominous sensation as we learn the hard way not to trust anyone but Laura herself. Gang allegiances shift, cities are divided and her captor’s motives are indecipherable. The dehumanised portrayal of those around Laura and the dark imagining of Mexico leaves little room for sympathy or empathy and few character to garner either.
Least of all Laura herself – who after a tragic beginning – becomes a guarded, unfathomable quantity whose actions and reactions seem to conflict with our own rational responses to the situations she’s forced into. No longer concerned with the triumph of the pageant crown – though it’s an honour she’ll ironically wear once she becomes embroiled in the ugly side of life – it’s her own survival which she’s now in a contest for. And Sigman conveys the mixed emotions of her disturbed and determined protagonist with admirable conviction and unspoken fears and hopes come through vividly. In one memorable section Laura must juggle smuggling money, fearing for her family, becoming the mistress of a gang leader and to top it all off – and though it remains unsaid – what’s clearly her first experience of flying. It’s mundane moments like these that keep a torch of sympathy alight for the otherwise obedient, almost sterile Laura.
Thrilling Mexican corruption, quietly powerful performances and a stylised, if low-key, filmmaking fashion combine for an at times extraordinary and always gripping cocktail of a film. Paradoxically though it never fails to feel measured, purposeful, controlled and composed in its direction – as if it has taken the best parts from the Hollywood template and improved on the rest. A from the ground, long take POV of a visceral gun battle stands out and provides a glimpse into how very dangerous and claustrophobic street warfare really is. As well, time outs from the breakneck pace of Laura’s down the rabbit hole story are achieved with static shots of her weather-beaten face, which essentially serve to chart the increasing metal degradation and manifest hysteria the nefarious events are having on her.
The rushed message at the end feels a little disingenuous but maybe only because the previous 113 minutes have been so thrilling and enjoyable for us? If so there’s guilt stitched into the film and a wakeup call too. Perhaps transplanting the violence and corruption of the Mexican streets into a Hollywood-lite crime thriller only serves to push home the horrifying notion that for many this is reality, these events are experienced daily and witnessed far closer than those watching it in a cinema screen.
Miss Bala is so engulfed by Laura’s thoughts, motivations and emotions that it transcends its gritty surroundings and high energy action sequences to become actually a rather delicate character study of a woman merely trying to survive. In this way it excels with every scene taut, tense, thrilling and captivating; and ultimately it serves as as a sad, hallow reminder that all the greatest movies are based on distressing facts.