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Miss Bala (2012)
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by Jay Seaver

"This bullet never stops."
4 stars

"Miss Bala" was Mexico's submission for "best foreign language film" at the Academy Awards this year, but didn't quite make the cut. That's may be appropriate, depending on how you look at it - its either a thriller that's short one twist and thus settles for being merely very, very good or an excellent attempt to communicate the constant, unending tension of life in certain parts of Mexico. Either way, it's a movie well worth watching, and in many ways exceptional - it's a rare movie that can sustain tension as long and as well as this one.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is twenty-three and lives with her father and little brother on the outskirts of Tijuana, and quite pretty, enough so that she is able to talk her way into the Miss Baja California contest despite being quite unprepared. Her friend Zusu makes it too, and parties with her gangster boyfriend to celebrate. Laura is trying to get her out of there when all hell breaks loose between rival gangs, and her attempts to find Zusu instead lead her to Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), a big name in the La Estrella crime syndicate with a favor to ask. Of course, Lino's in trouble too, so doing him favors probably just makes the peril less immediate.

Director Gerardo Naranjo and his co-writer Mauricio Katz do a number of things very well here, but one thing that is especially impressive is how, once they've started to bear down on Laura and the audience, they maintain a remarkably constant pressure. It's not so much that Naranjo (who also edits) never eases up - although that's rare - but the build-up is such a well-executed slow burn that the audience seldom feels the need for immediate cathartic release. That's good, because the closest thing to comic relief is when the story moves through the Miss Baja California pageant, which by that point seems surreally superficial compared to what Laura's been through. In fact, the filmmakers barely let up for exposition - Laura receives much more in the way of instructions than information, and since the audience is almost never privy to anything she can't see, we (like she) must piece things together from overheard news reports and first-hand experience.

Never leaving Laura's side means that, as good as the rest of the cast appears to be, their characters are going to remain somewhat mysterious, although what we see them do never seems arbitrary - they sell that there are reasons for everything they do aside from how it will affect Laura. Noe Hernandez paints a very good picture of Lino in the biggest supporting role, incredibly dangerous but a believable individual. It also means that we see a lot of Stephanie Sigman, and she almost never disappoints. She and the filmmakers give us the measure of Laura early on - pretty, average intelligence, maybe a bit below that in ambition - and once things get rolling, she shows us a dozen varieties of terror. That's the base of her best moment, when she's stuck in uncomfortably close proximity to Lino, and as he looks away, we can see that, yeah, she's still scared out of her mind, but she's also starting to think.

(Potential mild spoilers lurk in this paragraph) As great a moment as that is, it may set up some unreasonable expectations for the rest of the film; audiences expecting a lot of back-and-forth to immediately start up may be disappointed. Indeed, one could argue that Laura lives a lot longer than the typical character does who, from Lino's perspective, is a loose end without a lot of leverage. But, if you look at Miss Bala as less a thriller than a commentary, this makes some sense - maybe what was earlier read as getting ready to look for her moment is her deciding that obedience the best route to survival, and maybe her continued presence among the living is an example of just how arbitrary life in this environment can be.

Whatever his endgame turns out to be, Naranjo directs the heck out of this movie, building the slow burn like a master, and then having violence explode onto the screen. He establishes the chaotic nature of a situation by having it pop up with very little warning or explanation but showing what happens clearly, which makes the danger we see extraordinary and unexpected but also a regular fact of life. After all that's done, he ends the movie rapidly, leaving the audience still a little dazed and spellbound, as well as shocked over how much can happen in no more than a couple of days.

That's good; lots of thrillers stretch themselves out beyond what they need. "Miss Bala" ends with the audience still tense after at least an hour and a half in that state, and you've got to respect that.

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originally posted: 02/01/12 15:36:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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