Miss Bala and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
I somehow managed to survive January, but that month was so bad I’m ready to just write off February and maybe even March if I get the slightest bit saltier. What can I say? Getting sick twice, watching dreck like Escape Room, and even trying to justify my enjoyment of movies that EVERYONE ELSE seems to have deemed to be terrible has done little to improve my mood over the last thirty days, but who knows! Maybe things have FINALLY turned a corner and I’ll regret being this despondent at the start of February when I go see… whatever this movie is! Seriously, I didn’t even know this movie was coming out until three days before I went to see it, and I couldn’t gleam the slightest thing from the title or the poster. At least with The Kid Who Would Be King which is another movie I knew nothing about until right before its release, you can kind of get a grasp on the general idea from the overly descriptive title and the poster having a bunch of kids wielding swords and makeshift shields! ANYWAY! Does this mysterious feature turn out to be a hidden gem waiting to be discovered, or will it turn out that ignorance was truly bliss after seeing this movie? Let’s find out!!
Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) is a makeup artist in California who frequently travels to Tijuana so she can see her friend Suzu Ramós (Cristina Rodlo) and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano). This time however she comes with purpose as Suzu plans on entering the Miss Baja California pageant and could use Gloria’s expert makeup skills to make her truly shine in the competition! Sadly things don’t go quite as planned when Gloria and Suzu go to a nightclub that ends up getting attacked by the Las Estrellas gang led up by Lino Esparza (Ismael Cruz Córdova). Once the dust has settled, Suzu has completely disappeared and Gloria is kidnapped by Lino’s men as she saw too much and could now be a threat to them. Under the threat of death, she becomes an unwitting participant in further gang violence and is headed for a life of nonstop coercion if she cannot find a way out and hopefully find Suzu in the process. The best chance she seems to have is a couple of DA agents led by Agent Reich (Matt Lauria) who want to bring her up on terrorism charges due to her involvement in those unwitting crimes, but give her an out if she can plant a bug on Lino which will hopefully be enough to keep THEM from destroying her life before Lino does it first. Can Gloria find a way to escape these overwhelming forces that can utterly destroy her at the slightest of whims? Whatever happened to Suzu, and is Gloria simply chasing her tail by trying to find her in between coming up with a plan to escape and simply surviving this horrific situation she’s been forced into? Why is it that bad guys ALWAYS mess with the wrong person? You’d think just once they’d find the right person to mess with!
FINALLY! After a month straight of having no idea what the heck to think about any of the movies I saw, we start out February with what is inarguably a pretty darn good film! Okay fine, I STILL seem to be in the minority as this movie isn’t getting a lot of love from other critics, but unlike that other critical flop Serenity, I’m not really all that conflicted over this one as it doesn’t rely on some big concept twist that a lot of people aren’t going to have much patience for. No, what works about this movie is PRETTY straight forward as far as cinematic action thrillers go, though it certainly has enough going on under the hood that I feel it rises above the baseline of simply having solid gunfights and well executed moments of tension. Perhaps the biggest thing for me though is that it manages to do a lot of things right that I would normally detest in other films which is a HUGE load of my shoulders considering how much I’ve been stressing recently about how I watch and review movies! It’s not that I’m a hard to please jerk! It’s that other movies haven’t been doing it right this whole time! Okay, I’m still probably a hard to please jerk, but this hard to please jerk just got a movie that he liked, so that’s gotta mean something!
What works about this movie is that its surface level action movie fare (as well as a small degree of B-movie cheesiness) is ultimately backed up by a smart script that covers a lot of bases that are normally glossed over in lesser films. The thing that ended up impressing me the most is how much effort they put in establishing the utter hopelessness of Gina Rodriguez’s situation in a way that didn’t feel REDICULOUSLY oppressive, but was tight enough that I wasn’t sitting there wondering why she couldn’t do X, Y, or Z to get out of the situation. That’s a really important thing to get right when trying to sell such bleak material and a surprising number of other films that try to achieve the same tone (*cough* A Quiet Place *cough*) fail to build that solid foundation to sell the scenario. Even better is that once the pieces are in place to set up the scenario the film manages to get even better from there with some very well written set-pieces that ratchet up the tension and rarely overlap in any significant way so that each new challenge that Gina Rodriguez has to face feels unique and engaging. It’s such a great example of everything you’d want in a thriller like this, even down to the moments of humor to break up the tension before building the stress back up minutes later; all of which of course is backed up by some phenomenal performances that makes each character feel motivated with excusing their actions. It’s a tough line to walk where you want to have engaging characters that don’t overshadow or take sympathy away from our protagonist, and this movie manages to walk that line while also making each moment feel bleak and uneasy without feeling restlessly dour or cynical.
The movie deals with some rather heavy subject matter which got me pretty antsy early on in the movie, but where other movies like Hereditary and Sicario: Day of the Saoldado end up fumbling with their serious minded drama, this film walks that line darn near perfectly with grace and confidence. Primarily, we’re dealing with two BIG topics; women being controlled by men, and the dangers of organized crime in Mexico. On that first point, I think the movie shows an admirable amount of restraint by giving us thoughtful examples of women being in horrifying situations instead of just dropping that imagery in front of us as voyeuristic shock value. Sexual assault is certainly a constant threat in the movie, but if you’re worried about rape being portrayed on screen, I have no qualms with spoiling the fact that that never happens, at least not to Gina Rodriguez (the movie does involve human trafficking) and its never explicitly depicted onscreen; at most implied in certain places. Instead, we get something more akin to a Killgrave situation where the main antagonist of the movie is also someone who has no idea of what the hell they even are, and how their actions and threats have allowed a false narrative to build up in their mind. Lino is convinced that he can charm Gina Rodriguez into liking him, but it’s clear at every turn that any capitulation she gives him is not a confirmation of her softening attitudes but a survival tactic because he exerts so much power over her. At ANY time, she can be killed with no fanfare, no redemption, and probably labeled as a terrorist for her troubles, so if he tells her to drive a car with drugs across the border, cook food at one of the safe houses, or even take a shower, it’s not like she has any choice but to comply and yet Linois so wrapped up in his own sense of male entitlement that he sees a pathway to a relationship in all of this. At least for me, this kind of awful scenario is far more effective than simply watching someone getting tortured on screen, and as I said they do a great job of selling the hopelessness in ways that other movies fail to. Now regarding the representation of Mexico in the movie, I don’t really have the perspective to say whether or not it’s fair or propagandistic, but it’s certainly a lot less problematic than either of the two Sicario films. See, the Sicario films (ESPECIALLY part two) are from the perspective of those in power as the bulwarks against an existential threat at the border which ends up dehumanizing huge swaths of people as well as an entire region of North America. Where this film succeeds is by having our main character be stuck in the middle of the various factions in the war on drugs and if nothing else provides much more of a ground level and humane framing from which to tell the story. The DEA does in fact show up in this movie as do other powerful organizations and they all operate in ways that you would see in stuff like Sicario. The difference though is that we’re not following their story; we’re following the story of someone who would just be in the background or would only be on screen for one scene. The ground level consequences of the way that everyone conducts themselves in this war (entirely represented by men by the way in case it wasn’t obvious already what this film is trying to say) is on full display here and at least for me it works a lot better than other films that have tried to tackle this subject matter.
The movie does a good job of creating intense scenarios and a bleak outlook for Gina Rodriguez, but it has a little bit of trouble at the beginning to get her into that scenario and at the end to get her out of it. The movie is called Miss Bala which is a play on words of the beauty competition in the movie Miss Baja California, but said beauty competition is barely in the movie; coming in strong at the beginning and showing up almost out of the blue right at the end. In the first act when they were implying that she was going to participate in the event, I thought we were getting a dark version of Miss Congeniality or something, but then circumstances change in a rather awkward way and we completely forget about it until the end. Speaking of the end, I actually DID like the ridiculous finale which felt earned and extraordinarily cathartic considering how rough this movie was until then, but the post finale wrap up is where things go a bit too far into total silliness. It’s one of those things where you can buy something as over the top as the ending of this movie happening once in a person’s life (if your story isn’t about the most interesting thing to happen to someone, then why aren’t you telling THAT story?) but the wrap up makes the same mistake that a lot of great movies do and promises to give us more of something we didn’t really want more of. It’s almost like we got the underwhelming sequel already in the last five minutes of this movie which is a shame but frankly it feels so tacked on that you can completely ignore it and focus on everything else that’s great here.
The first few months of the year are always a weird time to release a movie, and I get the feeling that I’m probably gonna still be out of step with other critics for a few more of the upcoming movies (I’m not feeling too keen about that LEGO Movie sequel), so to a certain extent you might want to take my overwhelming praise of this movie with a degree of salt, but it really is the most unambiguously good time I’ve had with a movie so far this year. Even if the opening is a bit shaky and they don’t quite stick the landing, the movie is very well put together and the tension is palpable throughout which makes for an enjoyably intense viewing experience. I’d certainly recommend going to see it in a theater if you have the chance as it’s worth the ticket price just to see how well they pull everything off; not to mention that it’s a PG-13 film that manages to feel just like an R film, so I’ll give it props for that as well! The DCCU WISHES it could make movies this brilliantly dark!