Blame it on the idiot box. Thanks to the merciless adrenaline factory that is FX's Breaking Bad and the inexplicably long-running Weeds on Showtime, every TV-savvy American is a card-carrying expert on the Mexican drug war. The former began as a crime-drama-with-cancer and wandered into the fray, while the latter made a valiant effort to execute a multi-genre pirouette out of it. Both shows seemed, at first, not long for our television landscape, lighting a short fuse and, after the fuse fails to blow everything to smithereens, finding inventive and not-so-inventive ways to keep the story moving forward.
Laura Guerrero, the circumstantial heroine of Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, seems to stumble backward into a massive, narcotics industry-versus-law enforcement fracas, then tries every opportunity to get out from under it. The inciting incident descends on the screenplay with a suddenness that recalls the man who takes a leak in the woods in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, seeming to transition from a distant object to a lethal, face-hugging force in the space of a split second. In the film's subsequent reels, Laura makes several attempts to escape from the drawn noose of the conflict, which seems to rise up to greet her everywhere she looks, personified by a pug-ugly, mustachioed, barrel-chested brute who seems to be orchestrating the insurrection. (A strange moment, near the end, makes a barely there suggestion of a Departed-style double-agency.)
In a fissure that seems to stem from the pun of the film's title (“Bala” is Spanish for “bullet”), Miss Bala pits a claustrophobically subjective, nearly first-person-shooter-y movie against a more objective thesis statement regarding the blood ties that bind gender oppression/objectification and literal warfare. The experiential film is a tidal surge that seems to bear Laura along without her consent, satirizing the very notion that she might have plans, desires, and choices of her own, all the while restricting what we see to what she sees. (This paid significant dividends in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.) Naranjo's widescreen lens wraps around not only our peripheral vision, but also an expansive backdrop of firefights and executions, at times recalling the tracking-shots-of-strife tradition of Jean-Luc Godard and Béla Tarr.
In spite of a non-expository manner of storytelling, impervious to the temptations of close-ups and gratuitous shot/reverse-shot, Miss Bala is a superficial affair, betrayed by its pursuit of large, important themes. Even when Laura wins Miss Baja (it's the film's comic high point; her opponent's stricken, incredulous jaw-drop is priceless), Naranjo seems insistent on close-captioning the moment and, with rough-hewn man-hands, hitching it to the wagon of the larger, semi-satirical treatise on the burgeoning empire of crime.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.