Saturday, January 28, 2012

Miss Bala (2011)

Miss Bala (2011)
Dir. Gerardo Naranjo

3 out of 5

Pitched somewhere in between exploitation and urgent social commentary, the Mexican crime thriller
Miss Bala builds upon the dispatches from the last half-decade's drug cartel wars to tell a story about collateral damage. As the struggle for control of the lucrative narcotics trade wends its way along the U.S.-Mexico border, a willowy Tijuana beauty (Stephanie Sigman) of modest means dreams of stardom, skipping out on familial obligations to attend an audition for the Miss Baja California pageant. Her youthful idyll is violently interrupted after she witnesses a nightclub massacre by a particularly ruthless drug gang, whose leader (Noe Hernandez) spies an opportunity to use Sigman's striking looks as a shield for increasingly dangerous criminal activity. Loosely based on an incident involving a real Mexican beauty queen, the film dabs an unrelentingly bleak story with generous dollops of pulp.

Whether in the film's explosively swift and brutal firefights or Sigman's unwilling ascent from driver to mule to bait for a prominent police official marked for a cartel hit, writer-director Gerardo Naranjo seems most interested in the surrender of control demanded by the narco-wars. Hernandez makes a big impression with his chilling performance, quietly monstrous and nihilistic. Even in the softest of threats he commands obedience, and Sigman has no choice but to comply. Her character projects a crushing despair that underlines the cruel coincidence of her condition. She painfully realizes that the entire game is rigged and no help is on the way. Every cop in Tijuana appears as corrupt as the one who delivers her to the cartel when she tries to file a report on the nightclub shooting, and results-oriented DEA agents can't tell her apart from the willing accomplices. Sigman allows herself to smile only once, when trying on gowns for the Miss Baja pageant that the cartel fixes in her favor, but it's a sad, pitiful reminder of a dream perverted.

However, the pageant subplot fails to disguise the fact that Sigman's character is essentially just a backstory with an eternally terrified expression. She's a cipher for the filmmaker to re-enact pieces of the media hysteria surrounding the drug wars. Through her we more easily comprehend the terrible, exploitative nature of the cartels, but her story doesn't give much more insight than you might find in a typical newspaper article. There's also too much dead air in a film that's so preoccupied with the sensual and sensational. Naranjo lets scenes drag on in silence and exhausts the audience with attempts to create formal distance, such as blocking his actors deep within the frame and following Sigman with the ubiquitous Darren Aronofsky back-of-the-head tracking shot (as if her character needed to be any more faceless). The combination of grim realism and stylish artifice does work intermittently. The film gets its title from the Spanish slang word for "bullet," and Naranjo displays his impressive action chops in a handful of thrilling sequences.
But while its visceral appeal is impossible to ignore, the movie's style keeps getting in the way of its latent substance. Miss Bala's beauty is, unfortunately, only skin deep.

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