Unlike Terri, the latest, most commercial venture from his friend and AFI schoolmate Azazel Jacobs, Miss Bala doesn’t sublimate Gerardo Naranjo’s strengths into a commercially viable package; it forces us to completely reconsider everything we thought about him as a filmmaker. In contrast to his first two features, small things that tended to bring out descriptors normally reserved for children and puppies, Miss Bala is unabashedly powerful, a film where every shot chokes on its own urgency.
This fact alone isn’t enough to require such a profound reassessment of Naranjo’s work. Countless directors before him have drastically increased in self-importance (generally commensurate with an increase in budget), but what makes Naranjo a prime case for examination is the way in which a single feature seems to have radically recast the place his first two films were coming from. Where Drama/Mex, which reworked Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s usual bullshit into something slight and worthy, and I’m Gonna Explode, which lifted wholesale from the Godard of Pierrot le Fou to express the social anxiety of Mexican youth today, seemed at the time examples of a director aware of the freedom afforded by youth to indulge his influences, Miss Bala, a mature film in every sense, continues this pastiche style, lifting primarily from Brian De Palma’s long takes and Michael Mann’s ideas on sound to package a social-problem film as a Hollywood actioner that could have been made any time in the last 30 years. The result of this is a need to reconsider those first two films not as youthful indulgences, but as the works of a full-blown pastiche artist (though one of far less wit than Naranjo’s most exciting contemporary, Alex Ross Perry, whose work thus far has similarly concerned rummaging through cinema history).
Miss Bala, which in its perverse, inescapable cycle of horrible events suggests a more crass cousin to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 centerpiece “The Part About the Crimes,” fails precisely because Naranjo here cannot match Bolaño’s humanism, a fault summed concisely in a tracking shot across a long line of young woman waiting to try out for a beauty pageant: In contrast to an almost identical shot in House of Tolerance, in which Bertrand Bonello’s camera moves across a row of whores on display for a client, moving so slowly as to give time for each girl to register not only as a person, but as a personality, Naranjo zips across his waiting ladies so quickly that all that’s expressed is the idea of bored annoyance rather than any human interest. Such moments occur throughout: a single-take, Heat-inspired gunfight that trades in Mann’s sensual and structural openness for a rigid trajectory; an instance of the kingpin’s inescapable control that’s used as an excuse for an exercise in framing and lighting; a final bloodbath where it’s confirmed that who’s-killing-who is ultimately irrelevant (this, insofar as it’s tied to an idea about the opacity of relations between the narcos and the police, is at least defensible on conceptual grounds). And these moments all the more disappointing because of the exciting first shot, another impressive long take in which the camera is so interested in actress Stephanie Sigman that at one point it seems to run into a door and has to do a wobbly little jut to correct itself.
This isn’t to say Miss Bala is without virtues. Naranjo has one exceptional idea, a repeated head-on setup of Sigman that occurs at her most trying moments, eventually resolving in the final turning down of her eyes at the sound of a television broadcast describing her implication in the film’s numerous crimes. These moments, brief intrusions from the world of Eugène Green, signal Naranjo’s awareness of what he’s doing to this character (one might uncharitably read this awareness in the exploitation of a very tragic situation as the height of a cynical commercialism that’s the opposite of Polanski’s productive cynicism in Carnage), and offer Sigman’s Laura her only moments of agency in the entire film. If we consider that Naranjo’s style now seems centered on pastiche, the technical excellence displayed in every shot of Miss Bala is enough to maintain excitement for whatever comes next from him, as it confirms that the range from which he’ll be able to draw is unlimited. Nonetheless, it also confirms that his is the problem of great technicians throughout cinema: an inability to overcome the demands of technique to reach those of art, a fault which one can hardly find with his first two features. We can only hope that the perspective that produced I’m Gonna Explode can be imported to the prowess of Miss Bala.