"Miss Bala" is a thriller dedicated to giving the audience a no-nonsense telling of the Mexican cartels and their stranglehold in modern society of Mexico. The film uses a beauty pageant hopeful named Laura who is pushed against her will as the focus to propel the story but it is the overarching depiction of how entrenched the cartels are in Mexico that becomes the truly horrifying aspect to watch. Their control could be described as an octopus, in that the cartels have their tentacles wrapped around every possible tangible from politics to the economy in order to maintain dominance and fear. Director Gerardo Naranjo's footnoted statistics that dovetail the film actually burn like salt in a wound because it is clear that stories like "Miss Bala" go on and have been going on for quite some time in Mexico.
Director Gerardo Naranjo chose a very specific story to depict the cartels control and I was never able to feel the tension that was intended through Laura's plight. Even without disassociation from the character, Laura never felt more than a pawn in the cartel's scheme. Just another cog that helped to make their machine continue to turn. While on a human level clearly I felt for what Laura is going through, but based on her decisions and motivations, it was hard to care about what was unfolding. As awful as it sounds, Laura solely comes across as another lamb to the slaughter, but perhaps that is just a defense tactic so that I never allowed myself to care for the character.
Stephanie Sigman delivers an effective performance as Laura Guerrero. The role is bleak from the onset not to mention nearly mute and Sigman conveys a full range of panic and fear without error. Sigman illustrated a woman complacent in the fact that there is no where that she can hide from the clutches of the cartel and their plan. She has been selected and she can either play along or be killed like so many others. The crux to Laura's fear is connected with the character of Lino Valdez aptly portrayed by Noe Hernandez. Hernandez displays a genius methodical villain in Lino that is soft spoken and gentle yet deeply intimidating. I could easily watch a spin-off film focusing solely on Lino and his masterminding. Hernandez is the one thing that really pushed a sense of alarm in "Miss Bala," his presence is absolutely hair-raising.
Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and director Gerardo Naranjo do an interesting job of disorientating the audience with the camera work. Much of the perspective comes in a third person sense, as if we are following directly behind Laura as she is subjected through a number of situations and schemes to execute the cartel's agenda. Naranjo also chose a very deliberate pace that feels hellbent on slowing things down for the situations to play out. Many of these sequences become uncomfortable, pushing the suspense forward while others feel over-thought and just a bit too heavy-handed.
"Miss Bala" is a success in that is brings to light the deeply disturbing control of the cartels in Mexico. Where it waivers is its dedication to mixing the ills of Mexican cartels in the plight of a beauty pageant hopeful. Laura is a connectable character and plenty will have a raw connection to her, though I believe a more gritty account of the cartel would have made a deeper impact than this soft spoken tale. The thriller is built as an intense ride but it never fully captured the true sense of paranoia and fear it intended.