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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.

This guileless child dreams of being somebody, a famous face and figure that "will represent the beautiful women of my state." As though to deflate all dreams, Naranjo's camera tracks down a line of bored, variously used-looking chicas waiting their turn to shine in the pageant sun. Only Laura is animated, projecting a natural desire to catch someone's gaze and be valued.

That night Laura and her friend Suzu, partying with DEA agents, get caught in horrific crossfire during a cartel ambush. Laura cowers in the corner of a restroom until a monster with a gun looms over her: "Don't look at me," he says, and exits, sparing her life.

By obscuring the faces of his players, Naranjo underscores how individuality dies in a culture of nonstop violence and shifting allegiances. Running drugs may look like a way out of dehumanizing poverty, but no man's features can be recognized if he is to survive. (It's the obverse of beauty pageants.) There's play between the killing objectification of a beautiful woman's face and the lifeless looks of those who seemingly spend their lives exchanging gunfire, dashing from one speeding vehicle to another, chattering on walkie-talkies in a desperate effort to discover who's who and where. Nobody wins in this pageant of blood and existential futility, any more than in the Miss Baja competition, which can be bought and used to recruit bait for yet another bloodbath. Perfect circles of hell.

Naranjo seems to imply an organic parallel between selling the allure of women in beauty contests (and filmmakers that ride their expressiveness?) and dealing drugs—both being commodities that make money and get users high. But it’s a false, or at least slippery-easy, equivalency, tacked on but never convincingly explored. No ambiguity or nuance breathes life into this film school equation, but it's readymade fodder for PC critics and audiences.

From the moment Laura sees and is seen by Lino, a cartel thug, she devolves into a useful piece of meat, a vehicle to be ridden sexually or as a drug and money mule, weirdly invincible in one shootout after another. "Bala" means "bullet," and indeed, this Mexican miss is propelled into the high-speed, nomadic existence of drug dealers and their pursuers. But bullets possess a hard authority; they're purposeful and often effective. Too passive and dumb to be a true martyr, this senorita's a shell-shocked ragdoll. In one truly striking shot, Lino duct-tapes money around Laura's waist, the top of the frame guillotining her so that her headless torso looks like a perfectly formed vase of flesh.

Once, Lino seems to give his captive leave to disappear into rural darkness, but, still decked out in pageant finery, the lost girl returns to his truck. There, Naranjo frames Laura in CU, her tearstained face scoured of self and will, while somewhere behind her Lino digs into her doggie-style. In extremis, Sigman often offers up her visage to the camera eye, but what we see is skin deep, not authentically exposed psyche. Ultimately, the woman Naranjo has cast as his "heroine" is just a beanbag tossed from one horrific situation into the next, just refuse to be dumped on a dusty street in the wasteland that is drug-raddled Mexico.

Miss Bala's a bullet-train when it comes to cinematic action, but it rarely takes your breath away, either from pity or terror. Gerardo Naranjo's movie is a well-oiled machine, but not for the illumination of a soul. See it rather as an instrument for observing a black hole from a very great distance.

Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen Murphy