Cinema, television and even the music world have always had a somewhat romantic notion of the drug trade. Guys like Scarface and Omar from "The Wire" are seen as badasses making their way, while hip-hop has a whole sub-genre dedicated to raps about slinging crack. And while in our homes and on our iPods it may seem far away or even harmless, in Mexico, they are in the midst of a very real war. The statistics are staggering -- 36,000 dead from 2006-2011 including women and children -- and the economics moreso. $25-40 billion is generated by drugs alone; the crime lords definitely have a vested (and violent) interest in keeping their business going. But unlike movies, music and TV, in the real world, no one just decides one day they are going to get in the game -- sometimes you just end up there. And as we learn from "Miss Bala," once you're in, getting out is nearly impossible.
Laura's (Stephanie Sigman) introduction to the drug world comes as a terrifying accident. She and her best friend Suzu are aspiring beauty pageant contestants who have just passed the initial stages of the titular gala. One evening, the duo's planned outing to buy shoes is interrupted when her pal is whisked away to a party being thrown by her friends who happen to roll with DEA agents. Laura waits for her and when she doesn't return, she heads to the club herself to find her. With pulsing loud music and shady people grinding on each other, Laura finds her and immediately wants to leave. She heads to the bathroom to fix herself up when a group of men with machine guns drop in through the windows. Terrified, she curls up in a ball on the floor -- one of the men notices her, drops money in her lap, tells her to forget everything and gives her a few minutes to leave. She hastily grabs the cash and rushes out, trying to convince Suzu to go with her but she barely gets a few words in when the lights are killed and shots begin ringing, followed by screams and bodies dropping. Losing her friend in the darkness Laura rushes outside, into the night.
A day passes. Then another. And Suzu is nowhere to be found. Calls to her phone go answered. Without any other options, a desperate and concerned Laura find a police officer on the street and tells him about Suzu, and that she was in the shooting at the club and she can't find her. The cop first tells her to go to the police station, that as a beat cop, he can't do much. She pleads with him and he relents. Together they drive and he drops her right at the door step of the gang that lit up the club. Yes, the police are corrupt but that's not even the half of it. Laura's life depends on how she answers the next few questions and when it becomes clear that she just wants to know what happened to Suzu, she naively agrees to do a "favor" in exchange for getting info about her friend. And her life from that moment will never be the same again.
The gang is run by Lino (Noe Hernandez), a short, tough-as-nails leader who seems driven equally by ruthlessness and vengeance. He takes a menacing interest in Laura, and dangling information about Suzu like a carrot from a string, slowly but surely draws her deeper and deeper into the daily life of the gang. Embroiled in the midst of a deadly battle with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency as well as rival dealers, it isn't long before Laura is completely estranged from her family. She can't leave Lino not only because she doesn't know what happened to Suzu, but because she knows too much. Her inquiry has turned into a battle for her survival which soon involves getting involved in the day to day operations of the gang. It's less about Suzu than her own survival now and she tumbles head first down the rabbit hole into the drug war.
Director Gerardo Naranjo (the filmmaker behind the Godard-esque, "Voy A Explotar") has turned in a magnificently paced and deeply complex portrait of the out of control situation in Mexico with a masterfully subtle hand. This is a film that exists purely in observation; there are no speeches, there are no sequences staged to make singular point. As the film moves into its second half, Naranjo turns up the heat and the film gets incredibly darker and much more bleak (in fact, the second half prompted a small but noticeable amount of walkouts). But more importantly, the film quietly and profoundly unfolds the numerous layers of just how deep this drug war goes. It's not just in the streets of Mexico. It runs over the border into the United States, into Mexico's military power and yes, reaches its hand into even the beauty pageant that for Laura, is now just a distant childhood dream.
But not only is the film structured beautifully, Naranjo matches his smart screenplay with a breathtaking talent behind the camera. There are a few tracking shots early in the film that are giant nods to Martin Scorsese, but are impressive nonetheless. The action in the film is ugly, fast and quick. Laura's first job for Lino -- the aforementioned favor -- is simply driving a car from point A to point B. So Naranjo puts the camera in the driver's seat and we sit as Laura, following the car she is tasked to track as she races into traffic, through red lights and weaves lane to lane, desperate not to fail. Desperate to do what it takes to find Suzu. Later in the picture, Laura is driving a jeep and she literally turns around the corner into the midst of a full scale gun battle on the edges of a neighborhood. Bullets riddle the jeep and we drop with Laura onto the driver's side floor with the sound and fury of the battle outside large, unknown and terrifying. And yet, as strongly lensed as these moments and sequences are, Naranjo never hides how brutal and unforgiving the violence is. Bodies drop, people are left to die, blood runs freely. But most haunting of all, the dead are forgotten, just collateral of a larger fight that has no end in sight.
Naranjo saves his jaw-dropping trump card for the last scene of the film in which Laura's fate is decided, to illustrate with a tragic poetry, not only how futile the efforts against the drug czars are but how fractured the idea of justice being done truly is. "Miss Bala" doesn't tidy up the story into something easy to swallow and only offers a sliver of hard earned hope for our protagonist, which in the reality of the day to day grind of the escalating war on drugs, is about all we can realistically ask for. [A-]