Mexico’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar race, Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala literally spells out the destiny of its would-be beauty-queen heroine in its first shot, a collage of glamour magazine clippings on her bedroom wall built around the conspicuous headline “Fashion Victim.”
The bedroom belongs to Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a 23-year-old living in a wood-slat shack in Tijuana with her dad and younger brother. Laura and her best friend, Suzu, enter the Miss Baja California pageant, and the night before rehearsals begin, Laura follows Suzu into a nightclub to hang out with a sleazy-looking DEA agent who, Suzu says, can help their chances in the beauty contest. Then gunmen invade the club. Laura gets away, but loses Suzu in the process, and when she asks a cop for help finding her friend, he delivers her into the hands of the thugs who raided the club. The gang’s leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez), takes a liking to Laura and forces her to collaborate on a variety of crimes. In exchange, he fixes the pageant to make her a winner.
Inspired by a true story, Miss Bala is a work of impressionistic reportage, built out of artfully crammed widescreen compositions and bravura long tracking shots. The camera seems to never run out of room to roam—suggesting not so much that space in Mexico is endless, but that there are endless opportunities in Mexican public space for the everyday to become totally fucked up.
Naranjo’s last film was the teenage Pierrot le Fou gloss I’m Gonna Explode, and like that tale of doomed young love, Miss Bala takes on the oblique perspective of the powerless in a system where every conceivable authority figure is clownishly corrupt. In Explode, that system was adolescence, and the style was panicked fever dream. Miss Bala‘s broken system is Mexico itself, and the complete rot of life in an all-consuming drug war is portrayed as a slow-rolling waking nightmare. Sigman fixes on the camera with pleading, increasingly dazed eyes, reaching out to us instead of drawing us into her interior world. The character is intentionally lightly drawn: Laura’s suffering is symbolic, a surrogate for the suffering of a society helplessly caught in the crossfire.
As Laura’s predicament escalates, taking her further away from her familiar life and the sweet naïveté of that bedroom-wall collage, the look of the film becomes more stylized, the colors more saturated, the editing increasingly a vehicle for the blackest of ironies (like cutting from a dead-of-night rape scene presented in matter-of-fact medium shot, to the rapist and victim driving off together under a stunning sunrise.) Meanwhile, Laura becomes increasingly styled herself: Forced unwillingly into the role of gangster moll, she’s given new dresses and is groomed glamorously for the part, which happens to also make her a convincing beauty queen, which in turn makes her a more valuable member of the gang. As the thugs exploit her body as a tool of warfare, they also make her dreams come true.
That this isn’t exactly an equitable trade-off is expressed most spectacularly in the pageant sequence, which breaks into a sluggish second act and shocks the film back to life. The scene also offers the finest example of Naranjo’s approach to widescreen spectacle. As a visibly traumatized and virtually catatonic Laura accepts her crown, there are dozens of things happening on-screen at once, but it all registers as noise—all you can focus on is the terror on Laura’s face.