One can only imagine the horrors that come with being kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel. It’s a world of unspeakable violence, terror, death, grief and fear and is a very real threat. It has great potential as a storyline in a film, but it doesn’t work if the protagonist is unable to fully express just how horrific the situation really is. This is what holds back Miss Bala, the new movie from director Gerardo Naranjo.
The story centers on Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a young woman who wishes to become Miss Baja California. One night, while out at a nightclub with a friend, she witnesses a shooting. When she attempts to go to the police the next day to find her companion, she finds herself swept up and trapped in the dangerous world of the Mexican drug cartels.
Because the audience sees all of the events of the film through Laura’s eyes, it’s vital that they connect with her character and her plight, but unfortunately neither Sigman’s performance nor Naranjo and Mauricio Katz’s script really allow that to happen. Laura goes through some terrible ordeals, from smuggling money across the border to losing her best friend during a shootout at a nightclub, but she never experiences any sort of emotional breakdown. Every so often we see a random tear stream down her cheek, proving that the character isn’t suffering from ataraxia, but at no point does she fight back. There’s an important distinction that needs to be made between passiveness and indifference, and Miss Bala fails to find the line.
What’s ultimately lacking from the film is a sense of pathos, which Naranjo clearly wants to evoke, but never quite succeeds. Obviously none of us would want to become slaves to a Mexican drug cartel and we feel sympathy for Laura, but what hurts the movie is that it never becomes empathy. The character’s lack of emotion and resistance creates a barrier between her and the audience, as she never gives us a reason to really cheer her on. The audience is never fully engaged and is reduced to being simple spectators.
While the movie lacks in emotional attachment to the characters, it does have a fascinating visual style. Naranjo makes a lot of interesting decisions while shooting scenes, often filming from behind characters’ heads and even sometimes choosing to obscure the action – either with complete darkness or physical structures. While it seems questionable at first, it actually winds up giving the story a unique look that blends perfectly with the story of a woman thrust into a strange, dangerous new world.
It’s not hard to appreciate what director Gerardo Naranjo is trying to do. The Mexican drug cartels are appalling organizations that are responsible for countless deaths every year and unending mayhem. Miss Bala succeeds in showing off the horrors of that world, but does it in a way that makes audiences feel like they are stuck behind a glass wall. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it does hold itself back from being a great one.