LONDON - Having forgotten much of the Spanish I only sketchily learned in my first year of university, I’m afraid I was one of those dim critics who, at first glance, puzzled over the title of Gerardo Naranjo’s coolly crazed new film “Miss Bala”: a long-night’s-journey-into-day drug-cartel thriller, at once taut and elastic, revolving around the unlikely political center of the Miss Baja California beauty pageant.
Of course, it turns out that “bala” is the Spanish word for “bullet”; if this initially seems a clunkily direct pun for a rattling action film with no shortage of literal bullets in its arsenal, it turns out to be a coldly ironic joke on a female protagonist Naranjo’s restlessly prowling narrative methodically denudes of all defences.
Played with a tightly reined kind of anti-magnetism by promising big-screen newcomer (and, aptly, former model) Stephanie Sigman, our protagonist Laura Guerrero is less a bullet than she is a blank: a silkily gorgeous 23-year-old from a motherless household in working-class Tijuana, she pins her dreams on winning a chintzy cattle-parade pageant seemingly without any clear sense of what those dreams might be. Naranjo’s script stringently parcels out details of her background, livelihood and even personality: we know little about the woman but her meek yearning for definition.
Laura is a sufficiently reflective surface that the film itself, since its deservedly buzz-heavy Cannes debut, has become a mirror for whatever political, cultural and, in particular, gender preoccupations critics and commentators choose to see in it. Debate simmers over whether the hard-to-read human question mark at the film’s center marks “Miss Bala” out as a feminist statement—one that protests the disenfranchisement of women by authorities Mexican and otherwise—or one that’s complicit in that very prejudice, a velvet rope that divides not only social arenas but cinematic ones. I don’t think I am copping out by suggesting the film is neither: disenfranchised and relentlessly put-upon Laura may be, but her passivity makes her a clear-eyed if not especially comprehending guide through dense thickets of opposing corruption in state and street alike.
Unlike, say, Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 ensemble piece “Traffic,” “Miss Bala” is a drug-war study keen to jump to the bigger social picture, ahead of the synecdochic individuals shouldering its concerns. Naranjo’s patient, sun-blasted camera revels in luxuriant wide shots of white limousines cruising past knobbly shanty developments: the people inside scarcely merit further scrutiny.
Laura, for her part, stumbles artlessly from one ordeal to another, beginning with a classical wrong-place-wrong-time set-up when the nightclub she’s reluctantly partying at with a deadbeat friend is raided by armed members of The Star, a ruthless gang violently fighting the government’s drug laws. Delivered to them by a corrupt police officer after initially escaping, she’s not so much taken hostage as put unceremoniously to work: as The Star set about using her to bait a key state bigwig, the pristine pageant looks on which Laura had hoped to build a bright future cruelly become her ticket into the underworld.
As both the aims and the consequences of the plot in which she is enmeshed escalate with head-spinning rapidity, Laura’s complete loss of control over the situation is shared by the audience: for all its flavorful urban authenticity, the film’s latter-half developments are so numbingly, rivetingly out of time with reality that we begin to feel we may as well be watching “The Manchurian Candidate.” Rarely has a film made such a virtue of imposing inordinate suffering upon a character while inviting little in the way of profound empathy from the viewer: feeling sorry for a character is not quite the same as feeling for a character, and Naranjo devises brilliant formal strategies to keep us just outside Laura’s head throughout.
More exactingly (not to mention expansively) shot and constructed than any infinitely bigger-budgeted Hollywood thriller in recent memory, “Miss Bala” measures its thrills sequence for sequence, rather than cut for cut: Naranjo (serving commendably as his own editor) and Hungarian DP Mátyás Erdély (working in far balmier conditions here than in his striking calling-card collaborations with auteur Kornél Mundruczó) are content to stand at a comfortable distance from the action – letting the chips, not to mention the bullets, fall where they may. Several breathtaking single-shot setups observe frantic exchanges of gunfire with the calm fluency of Michaels (take your pick) Mann or Haneke, counteracted by agitated sound design.
As Laura’s panic increases, however, the camera corners her ever more mercilessly, until she’s imprisoned in tight close-up—half-naked, hiding under a bed—while a climactic gun battle plays out mostly unseen around us. That adroit manipulation of space represents the extent of Naranjo’s interest in penetrating his rat-trapped protagonist’s psyche; in this dazzling attack of a movie, it’s the manifold blind spots that hold all the answers.