Miss Bala - Stephanie Sigman
Beauty pageant winner Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is forced to do the bidding of a violent Mexican gang leader in a story loosely based on real events © 2011 Canana Holdings

This grim metaphor for Mexico’s crime-and-corruption miseries puts an innocent beauty pageant contestant at the mercy of a murderous drug cartel. But despite numerous high-firepower shootouts, the story is more of a melancholy tragedy than an action thriller.

That’s because sad-eyed 23-year-old Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is an almost frustratingly passive victim of kidnapping, rape and other abuse. Thoroughly intimidated by reptilian ganglord Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández), Laura spends most of the movie looking blankly shell-shocked, with an occasional tear rolling down one cheek.

The movie’s title equates the Spanish word for bullet with the Baja location where the beauty pageant takes place. Contestant Laura and a friend are at a club that turns out to be the wrong place at a very wrong time. After Laura survives a mini-massacre there by Lino and his thugs, she becomes the gang’s unwilling driver and money courier to protect her family.

Miss Bala - Noe Hernández
Soft-spoken Mexican ganglord Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández) lets his bullets do the talking © 2011 Canana Holdings

Director/co-writer Gerardo Naranjo is a little too fond of very long takes and shots of the backs of people’s heads, but is good at establishing an air of quiet foreboding. When she’s not dodging bullets in gun battles, Laura seems mournfully resigned to whatever new degradations are on the agenda. This often gives Miss Bala an unintentionally deadpan Perils of Pauline vibe, as the blank-faced beauty is ferried from one indignity to the next like a pitiful sleepwalker on puppet strings.

Naranjo makes Mexico out to be a trust-no-one hell on earth where corruption extends all the way from beauty pageant officials to the highest levels of law enforcement. When Laura is told to go to the well-guarded hotel room of police chief General Duarte (Miguel Couturier), she’s not the least bit surprised to find him in his underwear expecting her to undress.

Loosely based on real-life events involving Miss Sinalao beauty queen Laura Zúñiga, Miss Bala is Mexico’s entry for 2011’s Best Foreign Film Academy Award. It’s a strange choice, not only because of the movie’s remarkably unflattering portrayal of its country of origin but due to the fact that it is such an unremarkable work. Star Sigman doesn’t make Laura’s complacent catatonia all that interesting, and Naranjo’s direction is adequate but unexceptional.

On the other hand, perhaps Miss Bala got extra points from Mexico’s selection committee for being such an appropriate allegory for the present unfortunate state of that nation. Text before the end credits includes statistics about the more than 35,000 people killed in drug-related violence there over the past five years.

Like the victimized and emotionally wrecked Laura, Mexico has been corrupted and caught in a crossfire. Watching one woman suffer as its surrogate isn’t exactly a fun night out, but it does personalize the pain.

[Rating: 3 stars]

Miss Bala opens in theaters Friday January 20, 2012


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.