Film Review: Miss Bala

Review originally published at Picktainment:

There is a scene late in the film where Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is crowned Miss Bala. It is her only goal and nothing will stand in her way. It is, perhaps, a way to get out of poverty and a bleak existence in a border town. But at this moment, she is crowned the winner and the look on her face tells a whole different kind of story. She has rehearsed her speech: “My name is Laura Guerrero and I am 23 years old. My dream is to represent the beautiful women of my state,” but the words won’t come. She looks out at the audience, hoping to be rescued from her ordeal at the hands of a kingpin named Lino (Noe Hernandez), who is responsible for rigging the pageant in her favor. Of course, there is no help for Laura. Her ultimate coronation at the hands of Lino is an empty triumph. She knows that everything that had any meaning in her life – her hopes and dreams, her father and her younger brother, her friends, and her freedom – have all but vanished.

There is little joy in director Gerardo Naranjo’s epic metaphor for a country on the brink of collapse at the hands of the drug cartels that infest the border towns between Mexico and the U.S. There is a lawlessness here that has quickly spread like an infection throughout the country and there doesn’t seem to be any glimmer of hope. This is the setting for Miss Bala, Naranjo’s visceral look at the drug war raging just a few miles from our border. It is the kind of film that angers an audience that is all too aware of the injustices that it brings – a war where, clearly, there are no winners. It is also a film that can spark action towards reform. Is there any hope? The film does not say.

What it does say, however, is explosive. It is an action thriller devoid of the usual Hollywood clichés of bigger-than-life heroes and improbable endings. Instead, we see the world through Laura, forced to withhold emotions as she is coerced to carry out the dirty deeds of her captor. For Lino, his attraction to Laura is less physical, as he is perhaps, attracted to her innocence and strong will to survive, for he knows that in his own line of work, a drug warlord’s life is unglamorous and finite. This isn’t a film about who is the good guy and who is the bad one – all of that is implied. The director holds a mirror to his own country asking, “What are you going to do about it?” References to drugs are merely implied and it is the product that drives these wars.

It is a tightly written script with a breakout performance for Sigman. It’s not necessarily a popcorn movie for everyone, but then again, it’s not trying to be.

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