Miss Bala

THAT'S your hiding place?
Gerardo Naranjo
Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela, Jose Yenque
The Setup: 
Woman becomes an unwilling part of Mexico's drug war.

You know that feeling when you're not really getting into a movie, but your friend is sitting next to you, chuckling and reacting, and you start to dread that conversation afterward when you say you didn't really like it and they say "Why?" and tell you how they loved it? That was looking like the situation here, as the movie went on and I was just uninvolved, when one hour felt like two, and eventually I was just waiting for it to end, even after the thing had gotten positive reviews and was supposed to be a suspenseful thriller, and my friend Howard was sitting next to me making little noises like he was super into it. But luckily, once it was over, he also found it to be dull and uninvolving, and super long and a bit dreary.

We open in a poor village in Mexico, where Laura leaves her home for a day in the city, where she and her friend Suzu will apply to get into the Miss Baja contest. I still don't understand why the film is Miss Bala if the contest is Miss Baja, but you know what? I don't need to know. Anyway, they're accepted into the contest, go buy dresses, then Suzu disappears with her boyfriend, later to be found at a nightclub. As Laura is in the bathroom, we see men with assault rifles enter the club, causing her to hide and--THAT'S your hiding place? She just crouches down where she is, in full view. This is the beginning of our feeling that Laura doesn't necessarily make the best decisions, which makes it a little hard to sympathize with her.

She is caught, and thrown outside. She spends the night trying to call Suzu, and the next day she approaches a police car and asks if he could help locate her friend. He tells her to go home, and you're sitting there like "Yes, GO HOME," but she doesn't. Maybe this whole Mexican drug war happened overnight and she had no awareness of it, but I doubt that. Anyway, the cop takes her straight to the thugs, including the one who will become her kind-of-owner for a while, Lino. They take away her cell phone, and give her one of theirs, and ask her for her address and where she lives and who she lives with. You're sitting there like "You're not telling them the truth, are you?" but she is. I guess she's never seen a movie before, or read an article, or done anything but watch music videos and beauty pageants her whole life. The thugs have her park a car in front of the American embassy and walk away.

She gets away! But soon a bunch of cars surround her and a guy overpowers her and you're like "Wait? You KEPT the cell phone?" She goes home, but soon Lino is outside, injured and alone, and Dad just opens the door and let's him in. They see that he is injured, and he puts a gun down right next to Laura, but instead of blowing his ass away she does nothing. He takes her the next day, straps a bunch of money to her and puts her on a plane to the United States, which she makes without a hitch. A guy comes and takes the money, leaving her alone in the car, and you're like "Yes! It's the beginning of your exciting new life in the ol' US of A!" But no, she drives straight back to Mexico. Okay, I give up! Laura gets what she deserves.

There's a huge shootout as soon as she gets back, which leaves her traumatized, and then she is driven straight to the Miss Baja contest. She is made up, all shell-shocked, and cries and remains silent on stage, unable to answer whether she's more interested in money or fame. She also arrived way late, having missed the majority of the competition. Nevertheless, she wins! I guess we're supposed to intuit that the whole thing is rigged. She walks out--and calls Lino. Then it's another wild night with Mexico's drug lords, and the next day she is delivered to a luncheon with a General, whom she is pretty much expected to sleep with.

She goes to his room, and tells him they're coming to kill him. He leaves her in bed to die while he gets out of there, there's another massive shootout, and she is arrested. She appears in a DEA lineup, where she learns that not only was Suzu among the initial dead, her body was in the car that Laura parked in front of the embassy. Then Laura is just let go, dropped back into the streets, where she wanders off, world destroyed. We have a title informing us that lots of people have died in the Mexican drug wars, and that's it.

So as I said, I was relieved to learn that Howard wasn't that into it either, and also found it seeming much longer than it was. There are just so many passages where you have no idea what's happening, and this led to a discussion of movies that can keep you guessing and on edge trying to figure out what's going on, and a movie like this in which you can't guess and eventually just stop trying. There's also the reality that anything can happen, which also means that you stop guessing, or being interested, because as I said, anything can happen. One guess is as good as another, so you don't bother.

In one way, Laura's inability to take any action on her own behalf kind of works, because quite possibly this might happen to someone who's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and all we know about her is that her dream is to be in this beauty pageant. And of course, what would any of us do in that situation? We are conditioned from movies to think we'd grab the gun and take the dealers hostage and jump the minivan off the overpass and onto the passing truck, but in reality we'd probably be as shell-shocked as Laura is. Awesome, but not very dramatically interesting. In a movie, we kind of need a heroine we can get behind, and part of that is that we respect her and know she's doing her best to get out of a situation. Yes, yes, Laura is a giant metaphor for all of Mexico held hostage by the drug wars, ya ya, but still, in retrospect I didn't think she necessarily represented their best ambassador. If she's a metaphor for Mexico, I'm not sure how much that really says for Mexico. The ultimate message I got is that dim-witted and unresourceful people get caught up in Mexico's drug wars, delivering the unintended moral that maybe if they were just a tiny bit smarter, none of this would be happening to them. I don't think this is what the writer-director intended.

Others have described this as a "nail-biting thriller." Suffice to say my nails remained steadfastly unbitten. I found it long and fairly boring. Once again, if you want to know about the Mexican drug wars, you're advised to save your movie dollars and just read the New York Times.

Should you watch it: 

If it sounds interesting to you, but otherwise you're safe giving it a pass.