Miss Bala: Cannes Review

Miss Bala - 2011
The violent drug cartels of Baja California offer strong crossover potential for a tense art house actioner.

Actioner stars model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman as a young woman recruited into service by a Mexican drug cartel.

Fast and dangerous, Miss Bala is a hair-raising actioner that thrusts a young Mexican girl into the thick of a drug war between local gangsters and U.S. narcs. The setting is Baja California in  Mexico, depicted as a lawless country where armed drug cartels have perpetrated 36,000 murders since 2006 in connivance with the police. The sickening matter-of-factness with which director Gerardo Naranjo (I’m Gonna Explode) shows the drug traffickers’ ruthless violence, coupled with the sad-eyed appeal of the protagonist, earned this Canana/Fox International co-production a premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, and the same qualities should broaden crossover potential for its release.

Unlike mainstream gangster tales, however, there is nothing very consoling about the ending or, indeed, any part of the film. A brooding sense of despair and helplessness pervades the script by Gerardo Naranjo (who also directed) and Mauricio Katz, more in the mood of a horror film than a shoot-em-up.

From the very first shot, the story is told through the eyes of the innocent Laura (model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman, making her feature film debut). A tall, willowy girl from a poor family in Tijuana, she dreams of participating in a beauty pageant with her best friend Suzu. Their plans take a nasty turn in a gangland disco. Laura is in the bathroom when armed men slip over the wall and start firing on the dancers, leaving a bloodbath behind them.

As an eyewitness, she’s kidnapped by the hitmen. Her ravishing looks may be what saves her life because instead of killing her, the inscrutable drug lord Lino (Noe Hernandez) forces “the skinny girl” to become a driver and drug runner for the gang.

From that moment on, the film’s pace races through events in a chain of escalating violence, tension, smoke and gunfire. The gang lords appear to control the police but not the American DEA agents who are their implacable enemies. They speed through Baja in SUVs and huge trucks full of corpses as the action shifts unexpectedly, leaving the viewer uncertain what will happen next.

To save her father and brother, Laura lets Lino tape wads of money around her tiny waist.  She gets past U.S. border police and is flown in a small plane to a rendezvous with Lino’s American cohort (James Russo), who sends her back with fresh weapons and ammo. But someone has betrayed them, and when Laura arrives in Baja, trouble is waiting for her.

Like the 2008 Italian film Gomorrah, which described the way the organized crime operates in Naples, Miss Bala derives much of its interest from its insider’s view of drug traffickers who live in  symbiosis with the police. None of these killing machines emerges as a character apart from Lino, who’s barely there. The line between good guys and bad guys is so blurred that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish friend from foe. When Laura seeks help from a local cop, he whisks her to the gang’s hideout instead of the police station; and in the rapid-fire finale, it is not clear what side the army is on, either.  

The only alternative the film offers to the world of crime and murder the surreal setting of the Miss Baja California contest, a rigged TV event whose tinsely glitter even Laura sees through.

Sigman emerges as an actress with strong screen presence, if still little range; a courageous victim who earns sympathy even when being forced, as she frequently is, to strip for her captors. Matyas Erdely’s cinematography is rigorous and essential, lending a hard edge to the subject. The tension is controlled scene by scene through Emilio Kauderer’s disturbing background score.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard
Production companies: Canana, Fox International Productions
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque.
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Screenwriters: Gerardo Naranjo, Mauricio Katz
Executive producers: Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Geminiano Pineda.
Producer: Pablo Cruz
Director of photography: Matyas Erdely
Production designer: Ivonne Fuentes
Music: Emilio Kauderer
Costumes: Anna Terrazas
Editor: Gerardo Naranjo
Sales agent: Fox International  Productions
113 minutes