It brings me no joy to tell you that Catherine Hardwicke’s Miss Bala is a movie without an identity. At times it shows promise, as Hardwicke is a talented director. But it doesn’t change the fact that Miss Bala is another movie about the Mexican border involving drugs and forced prostitution.
Movies about Mexico are hardly new, nor is painting other countries as lawless wastelands. But lately, it seems we cannot have a movie set in Mexico that isn’t about cartels and sex trafficking. We have Roma, but it is a movie that demands the audience conforms to its own rhythms and pacing. Miss Bala isn’t as artful as Roma, but it has something to say or at least tries to. To be fair to Miss Bala, it is a remake of a 2011 Mexican film of the same name.
However, the script by Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer and the movie are forever at odds. As written, much of Miss Bala feels like an exploitation thriller. Luckily Hardwicke’s touch seems to pull back from much of the script’s wants. If a man had directed this movie, I have a feeling the movie would’ve been vile and disgusting.
As is, Hardwicke channels Dunnett-Alcocer’s story into a metaphor for how women’s bodies are treated by men. Gloria’s (Gina Rodriguez) body is grabbed, dragged, poked, and groped, but never in a blatant way. Rodriguez plays Gloria as a woman angered and infuriated by how the men freely pull and her push her around. She may be powerless but she is never so without agency that she doesn’t make her discomfort known.
Dunnett-Alcocer sets out to make Miss Bala much too complicated for its own good. Gloria is forever being kidnapped and thrust into one scheme after another. She goes down to Baja California to visit her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) and help do her make up for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. While partying one night a gang, Las Estrellas, break into the club and open fire.
Afterward, Suzu is missing and Gloria is desperate to find her. From here Gloria will be taken by Las Estrellas, the DEA, Las Estrellas again, and the CIA. The plot treats Gloria like a pinball in an arcade machine.
But Hardwicke circumvents this by turning the gangs and government agencies into metaphors for men in general. Las Estrellas, the DEA, and the CIA are all men and they are led by men who promise one thing but betray their words by their immediate actions.
Hardwicke visualizes a patriarchal system; each group, good or bad, treats Gloria more or less the same. She is an object or tool to be used in their own war. No matter how much she begs for help to find Suzu, they only offer empty promises to help. In the end, Gloria must find Suzu herself. The systems in place are designed to use and discard her, not to help.
Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is the leader of Las Estrellas. A charismatic and sinister leader, he seems fascinated by Gloria. Though, like most men, he confuses his interest in her with caring about her. Despite what he may say, he can’t stop using Gloria as a means to his own ends, even in the end.
Miss Bala has a sort of darkly tragic nihilism running through its veins. For example, Gloria is tasked by the DEA to bug Lino’s phone. She suceeds in doing so. While at Lino’s hideout, the phones are collected to try and find a mole. Gloria sneaks into the room where the phones are held and switches the bug into another phone. Unfortunately, the phone she’s switched the bug into belongs to Isabel (Aislinn Derbez), one of the women Las Estrellas keeps at the hideout under duress.
Gloria tries to stop Lino and begs him to spare Isabel but he cannot let betrayal go unpunished. Interesting, though, that Lino has no qualms about betraying Gloria. In a sly way, Miss Bala mocks the stereotypical “code of honor” amongst men. One feels as if Hardwicke finds the code to be insincere, as it only applies to men, and more often than not is used to silence justice for women.
Rodriguez’s Gloria is neither a warrior or a coward. She plays her as simply a woman trapped in a system that doesn’t care for her while also trying to find her friend. But as a woman, Gloria is resourceful in switching her allegiance. We can see it in Rodriguez’s eyes, Gloria is always thinking and contemplating her situation. The hardest thing for an actor to do is to listen. The second hardest thing is to be seen thinking. Rodriguez excels at this and rises above the film’s shortcomings.
When a DEA sting goes sideways and she discovers her promised escape was never going to happen, she helps Lino escape instead. After all, the goal is to find Suzu and leave, not just to leave. In some ways, Gloria’s code of honor is more fully realized than the ones espoused by the chest thumping, swaggering men in her life.
She feels devastated when her attempt to save herself ends with a woman like herself being murdered. But when she switches sides yet again, it is not out of petty grievance, it is because Lino has lied to her, and knowingly so, to use her and Suzu. Gloria’s code holds more water because unlike the men, she follows it and is gutted when she herself fails it.
Hardwicke uses Patrick Murguia’s camera to slyly demonstrate how little the men in Miss Bala think of Gloria. The camera closes in on pieces and parts of Rodriguez’s body, not to be exploitative, but to show what piece of her body they are focusing on. She is not viewed as a whole person, even when Lino lusts after her. She is an assemblage of parts to be dissected and cast aside when done.
The problems of the film arise in how the whole thing is strung together. I mentioned earlier that Miss Bala is overly complicated. I do not mean that it has too many moving parts. Sometimes we watch a movie and it will do a particular moment over and over just one time too many. Or it will go in a particular direction just a few feet too far. The movie loses itself when trying to forsake its themes for entertainment.
The war between the two gang heads, which is the driving plot mechanism, makes no sense. It could be argued that it is a MacGuffin, but if it is, it is one that is hardly used and rarely mentioned. Lino is given a scene or two to flesh him out and allow us inside his head. Except, why should we care? After seeing everything he does, he is not a character we want to sympathize with or even care about. The desire to try and understand Lino is at odds with everything else Miss Bala is attempting. No one bothers to care or get inside Gloria’s head, but we are meant to care about the head of a cartel holding her prisoner?
It doesn’t help that Lino’s monologue is the same tired old monologue all bad guys seem to have. He talks about growing up poor, how he had to learn to take what was his, and how he wishes to retire and build a farm. It is so familiar we can close our eyes and recite roughly the same speech.
Worse still is how Murguia’s smooth and effective camera work is punctuated by trailer scenes. Trailer scenes are scenes shot specifically for the trailers. Their existence is less for narrative or character purposes and more to look cool and entice you to pay for a ticket. It’s a shame to see such carefully crafted scene work butchered by shots that feel out of place and contradict scenes that came before and after them. All done so people won’t complain about how the scenes in the trailer weren’t in the movie.
Miss Bala has a lot of action, but none of it feels like anything but visual noise. The scenes feel as if Hardwicke and Murguia were contractually obligated to have them. The shootout between Las Estrellas and the DEA feels obligatory rather than intense.
I don’t know whose decision it was, but there are times when Rodriguez is not on scene or we see a scene from someone else’s point of view, and it lets all the air out of the built up tension. Seeing a gang member fire a grenade launcher is cool, yes. So is seeing a DEA agent realize he’s about to be blown up. But neither is as interesting, engaging, or intense as watching Gloria think.
The most glorious part of Miss Bala is Gloria’s resilience and resolute loyalty to her friendship with Suzu. Rodriguez is able to portray anguish and doubt while also making snap decisions without mugging for the camera. She is so good, and Hardwicke’s desire to tackle systemic oppression through normally exploitation material is so impressive; it’s shame it never really comes together. Looking back on it I can’t help but think if maybe it wasn’t so concerned with the action, it might have been more thrilling.