(Gerardo Naranjo, 2011)
It's the consistency of the stylistic approach that makes Miss Bala so powerful and unique. A story of this kind would typically find itself housed in a much juicier, more hyperbolic vehicle, with more of a pronounced Goodfellas influence. But Director Naranjo instead opts for an artier approach. He finds a shot - generally a beautifully composed shot, which, with a little or a lot of camera movement, will inevitably give the audience all the story they need - and he sticks to it, cutting relatively rarely. That means that the storytelling throughout this film is elliptical, stylish and evenly-paced. Some of the biggest scenes - a pitched gun battle in the street between the Mexican military and a drug cartel, for instance - are captured in a single take, the camera following the title character through the area as the action occurs in the background.
That main character is Laura, a beautiful 23-year old from Tijuana who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and soon is working for a vicious drug gang in order to survive and protect her family. She finds herself smuggling, in the middle of gunfights, and in a twisted fulfilment of her fantasy, winning a Beauty Pageant, much of it captured by Naranjo's camera from a position behind her head as she is propelled and dragged along by the gangsters who have invaded her life.
It plays a little bit like Carlos Reygadas goes pulp - no bad thing - and that pulp content, when combined with the exemplary control and artfulness of the direction, helps make it wholly gripping and compulsive. It also seems driven by a righteous fury at the state of modern Mexico - as a graphic at the end states, 36000 people have been killed by the Drug War over the last few years - and the plot repeatedly underlines the way corruption infiltrates every level of society, poisoning all it touches. Laura's fate is manifestly unfair, and Miss Bala suggests that such injustice is nothing unusual in Mexico today.
Much depends on Stephanie Sigman in the lead, and she is terrific; her characters journey from stark, quivering terror to a stoicism and inner toughness which she never suspected she had is subtly, powerfully played. Each of the supporting players is effortlessly convincing, helping to make this textured, vivid view of a world feel remarkably authentic and unforced. In an action film - for that is what this is, albeit an incredibly obtuse one - this sort of commitment and nuance is fantastic and unexpected.
In all, it's a riveting, remarkable film.