The statistics which precede the closing credits of director Gerardo Naranjo’s excellent thriller Miss Bala present a reminder of the real-world casualties of Mexico’s ongoing war on drugs, newspaper coverage of which provided the true-life story forming the narrative backbone of the film; a heartstopping descent into a hyper-reality of corrupt border-city politics, arms and drug trafficking, delivered throughout with breathtaking formal control. The insistence of its style and objectivity of focus, coupled with the relentless compounding of events endured by protagonist Laura, distance Miss Bala from the purported realism of the likes of Gomorrah (2008), Amores Perros (2000) or City of God (2002), instead positing its lead as a vessel through which to illustrate the effects and endemic corruption of a city engaged in a civil war of sorts, the beauty pageant in which the character enrols offering sly parallels in microcosm.
Utilising extended, meticulously framed takes to chart his heroine’s waking nightmare, Naranjo’s direction recalls Brian De Palma in its fluidity of movement and Michael Mann in the staging and kineticism of its action sequences, but also brought to mind Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (2009) in the long, fixed-camera driving sequences and unflinching eye towards Laura’s powerless descent into transgression. Taking at his word the gringo arms dealer’s command “don’t look at me”, Naranjo is careful not to individuate his characters, casting them as localised social archetypes in a genre framework, casting supporting faces which blend into one. Even Stephanie Sigman’s brilliant performance as Laura is presented as a cipher through which the viewer experiences her world, a perspective keeping her psychologically at arm’s length, the most frequent shot framing her from behind, in the centre of the screen, allowing us to follow her through the film, as passive and unable to control circumstance or trajectory as she is. Power is held elsewhere in Miss Bala’s world, but those holding it are no more individuated; when we first meet Lino (Noe Hernandez), leader of the criminal gang that holds her to ransom, we don’t see his face at all, even the beautiful Laura is often obscured completely (the opening shot recalling Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, 2008), making the impact of her few close ups all the more effective in their rarity, utilised when she takes decisive action herself or to comment on the effect and exploitation of female beauty, by the pageant and the drug gangs (and cinema?). The opening shot centres the phrase ‘fashion victim’ on Laura’s bedroom wall, and her audition for the Miss Baja pageant requires her to repeat “my dream is to represent the beautiful women of my State”; perhaps she can be seen as representative of all victims of the drugs war, her commodification and objectification in both worlds suggested through matching images and framings.
Naranjo generates tension from outside of the frame, or through shallow focus shifts within it, a faceless sense of dread ever present. Much of the action occurs off-screen, aided by the fantastic sound mix; the POV perspective on the action keeping our focus on Laura as bullets fly past her, staying within the car with her when it suddenly comes under attack or on the floor by the bed under which she hides during an attempted hit. Suspense builds equally through the masterful editing and epic single shots, one slowly creeping past a raging gun fight on the streets, another sweeping round to take in the hanging of a policeman from a bridge. When Laura enlists a cop to help her find her friend, the single, fixed camera take as he drives her to the police station becomes a masterclass in tension building Hitchock would be proud of, as she slowly realises he’s delivering her straight into the hands of the drugs gang.
By any measure, Miss Bala is an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat experience, executed with breathtaking confidence and technical invention by Naranjo, building momentum and menace often through the cinematography alone. If I see a more narratively or formally exciting thriller this year, I’ll be very surprised.
Miss Bala – 2011 – Mexico/USA – 113 mins – Dir : Gerardo Naranjo
Miss Bala is screening at the London Film Festival on 19th, 20th & 22nd October and goes on general release on October 28th.