out of Five
Running time: 113
Gripping and heart-breaking in equal measure, this is an impressively directed and superbly acted thriller that plays like a collaboration between the Dardennes Brothers and Michael Mann.
What's it all about?
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo (I'm Going To Explode), Miss Bala is set in the border town of Baja, Mexico (the title is a play on Baja/Bala that translates as 'Miss Bullet') and stars model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero, a young woman who dreams of winning the Miss Baja beauty pageant in order to help out her poverty-stricken father and younger brother. The night before the contest, Laura goes to a seedy nightclub with her best friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) and ends up witnessing a bloody shoot-out.
When Laura attempts to find Suzu the next morning she asks a local cop for help but he drives her straight to local crime boss Lino (Noe Hernandez), the man behind the nightclub hit. After hiding out at her father's place following a gun battle injury, Lino offers to help find Suzu in return for a series of favours and soon Laura is caught up in an ever-increasing spiral of corruption and criminal activity.
Stephanie Sigman anchors the film with a terrific central performance as Laura, whose seemingly passive acceptance of her fate (she's no kick-ass heroine, despite the title) is heart-breaking to watch. Needless to say, her character is intended as a cypher for the Mexican people, powerless to prevent the vicious gang warfare erupting around them thanks to a corruption at all levels and a collusive police force.
Using long, fluid takes (courtesy of cinematographer Matyas Erdely) and minimal dialogue, Naranjo's direction is extremely impressive throughout: the camera stays with Laura at all times (in a manner that recalls the work of the Dardennes Brothers) so that all the action happens around her, often just off-screen. This is particularly effective during the numerous gunfights; the camera sticks closely to a diving-for-cover Laura as the air around her explodes with deafening gunfire, Michael Mann-style.
The excellent script rewards close attention to detail, with news reports and snatches of conversation revealing information that Laura doesn't always pick up on. In addition, Naranjo orchestrates a number of powerful and memorable scenes, the highlight of which is the brilliantly ironic beauty pageant sequence.
Brilliantly directed and superbly written, Miss Bala is an utterly gripping and powerfully moving thriller with a terrific central performance from Stephanie Sigman. Highly recommended.