Gerardo Naranjo called his last film I'm Gonna Explode, and with his latest picture he has. Miss Bala is an extraordinary display of directorial verve and dynamism, as Naranjo plunges us into the heart of the ongoing Mexican drug wars. However, the protagonist we follow is not a cop, a dealer or an agent – the central character in Miss Bala is a woman in her early 20's who only wants to compete in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a modest, honest woman who lives at home with her father and younger brother. When her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) informs her of the contest, she defies her father's wishes to attend, and this is the decision that will drag her into a waking nightmare, one realised by Naranjo with a blistering intensity.
The first sign that things are going wrong for Laura occurs when she loses Suzu in a nightclub as a hit is carried out by a local cartel, and this is also the first sign of Naranjo flexing his directorial muscles, with the tense sequence being expertly staged. As Laura washes up in the bathroom, men with guns climb down through the window and burst into the club, taking out revellers in the dark. Terrified, Laura attempts to locate Suzu amid the mayhem without being caught in the crossfire, and Naranjo orchestrates this in a fluid, gripping long take that follows Laura amid the chaos.
Throughout Miss Bala, the director lets the action unfold in these extended, superbly coordinated sequences, maintaining a tight focus on the terrified young woman at the centre of his complex narrative. In one superb scene, Laura asks a friendly-looking policeman for help locating the missing Suzu, and he tells her to get in so he can drive her to the station. Naranjo holds the shot as they drive until we – and she – gradually realise that Laura is being driven further into danger by this corrupt cop. Every level of society is riddled with the corruption and criminality that Laura is exposed to, with even the Miss Baja contest being rigged by those with the power and influence to do so. As she walks out onto the stage, Laura should be feeling immense pride as she achieves her dream, but that dream has been tainted by the bloodshed she has witnessed and the behind-the-scenes machinations that have secured her prize.
As a protagonist, Laura is a strangely passive and reactive figure. Things happen to her, often beyond her understanding, and she tries to deal with it as best she can, with her instincts for self-preservation informing her decisions. Having such an acquiescent character as the focal point of the story may seem unwise, but Naranjo places us in close proximity to her and makes us share her experiences. We quickly empathise with Laura and come to care about her fate, and Stephanie Sigman brings such a sense of raw, real emotion to the role it becomes impossible to remain detached from her trauma. The danger that surrounds Laura feels so real and permanent; embodied by the brilliantly threatening and repellent Noe Hernandez as the gang leader who has Laura in his vice-like grip.
When Laura, disorientated and in shock, staggers out onto the stage and bursts into tears at climax of the Miss Baja contest, the host suggests she has been overcome by the emotion of the occasion and quickly ushers her of stage. But in Miss Bala, Naranjo is determined to peel back the surface of Mexican society to present it as the dark, violent and morally bankrupt world he sees it as. Miss Bala is a thriller – and an exhilarating one – but it is also a potent exposé of a broken, corrosive society that taints anyone who becomes trapped within it.