AFI grad Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala can’t help but make art movie aficionados swoon—and Hollywood sit up and take notice. Might there be just a whiff of opportunism, aesthetic and thematic, in this pedal-to-the-metal thriller about the victimization of a young and beautiful woman (Stephanie Sigman) inadvertently swept into the bloody war among Mexican drug cartels, the DEA, cops, and maybe even the military? One writer may have exposed the little worm in the apple of so many critical eyes: “Were it not for the pervasive horror of the real-life combat, Miss Bala might have seemed absurdly lurid, unduly noir.”
Socio-political hook aside, it’s clear that Naranjo’s studied Dreyer’s Joan, Godard’s Nana, and the Oscar-nominated Mary Full of Grace, and that he knows a thing or two about using the power of a woman’s face to give a movie shape and meaning. And there’s little doubt he’s understands Michael Mann’s action-sequence techniques, though he doesn’t share that director’s passionate commitment to the beauty and grace of humans negotiating dangerous spaces.
At the opening of Miss Bala, the face of Laura Guerrera is unseen; as the girl moves about her bedroom Naranjo’s camera takes a long look at a smeared mirror surrounded by many, many clippings. It’s clear Laura aspires to something; mirrors traditionally reflect female vanity, and those clippings promote beautiful women like Marilyn Monroe and her sisters. Finally the camera catches up with the real thing, lanky 23-year-old Laura, her lovely features untouched by experience, heading out to compete in the Miss Baja beauty pageant.