A critical hit upon its BFI London Film Festival appearance last year (though predictably fairing less well at the UK box office), Gerardo Naranjo’s Mexican thriller Miss Bala (2011) gets a DVD release this week thanks to distributors Metrodome. At times stark and gruelling, yet at others laborious and overdrawn, Miss Bala marginally falls short of truly impressing.
Naranjo’s latest features a stunning debut performance from rangy newcomer Stephanie Sigman as protagonist Laura Guerrero, a young aspiring beauty queen who finds herself embroiled within a violent drug trafficking cartel, headed up by malevolent kingpin Lino (Noe Hernandez). After trying out for the ‘Miss Bala’ beauty pageant with best friend Suzu, the two end up at a seedy party in town which is subsequently attacked by Lino and his AK-carrying personal army. After making a number of enquiries regarding the now-vanished Suzu, Laura becomes a pawn for the drug traffickers, carrying out a number of shady missions in return for information – and also the continued safety of her father and younger brother.
In fits and starts, Miss Bala is a stylish, extremely well-shot crime thriller, with Naranjo displaying a clear flair for capturing the intense, brutal nature of Mexico’s lawless suburbs. Sigman is an ever-watchable performer, able to compact her imposingly tall build as she shields herself from the bullets and backstabbing that surrounds her. Hernandez also impresses as the sinister Lino, at times caring and even compassionate towards Laura, yet for the most part a cold-hearted, reptilian killer with blood-soaked visions of grandeur.
Unfortunately for the film as a whole, Naranjo at times struggles to move the narrative forward fluidly. Too often we find ourselves at an impasse, eagerly awaiting the next set piece to pick up the pace once more. It’s only right that we should feel as lost and confused regarding who is fighting who as Laura, with the drug traffickers, local law enforcement and US DEA all with a finger in the pie and a substantial amount to lose. However, Miss Bala narrowly fails in sustaining the raw intensity it pervades from the off.
Whilst by no means a poor film, Naranjo’s latest effort simply cannot contend with some of the superb crime thrillers to have come out of South America in recent years – notably Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002), José Padilha’s Elite Squad series, Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero (2008). Seek out Miss Bala – but just don’t expect to be blown away by its depiction of Mexico’s corrupt, lawless townships.