Film Review – Miss Bala
Miss Bala (2019) does something that few films manage to accomplish: set out with a specific goal in mind and end up doing the exact opposite. My assumption is that director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Garth Dunnet-Alcocer – remaking the Spanish language film of the same name – wanted to tell a story of a woman growing into someone who fights to survive against all odds. However, the final product ends up doing everything but that, even going so far as being a misogynistic tale of how she has to endure torment from every male character she comes across. And even when she eventually finds the courage to stand up on her own, by then it’s too little too late.
From the very beginning, our lead character Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is treated with little regard. Gloria is a Mexican-American makeup artist whose has aspirations to move up in her field, but when she takes her ideas to her fashion designer boss – right in the middle of a show no less – he dismisses her without a second thought. Does he do this because he thinks she’s below him, or is it because they’re caught in the chaos of a show and just doesn’t have the time to look over her work?
Soon after, Gloria travels to Tijuana to help her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) prepare for the Miss Baja California pageant. But the night before the pageant, the two go out to a nightclub (not a very smart idea) that gets raided by a gang, causing a shootout to ensue. Suzu disappears, and Gloria gets apprehended by the gang, lead by the ruthless Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova). Without a means of escape and no help coming for her, Gloria gets stuck in a bad situation where she must follow Lino’s every order and command.
This is where things come apart. Throughout the majority of Miss Bala, we have to bear witness to Gloria getting pushed around and forced to do bad things for Lino and his thugs. He promises her safety and the expectation that they will find Suzu, but we all know that doesn’t amount to much. Gloria manages to stay alive by doing exactly what is told of her. Whether it’s delivering weapons or even taking part in a terrorist act, Gloria goes along step by step. Of course, in a situation like this, most people would be too afraid to stand up against a group of murderers. The issue is how the filmmakers managed this narrative, using Gloria’s traumatic experience as the reason she becomes more clever and cunning. It’s as though all these aspects were not part of her personality until she was kidnapped.
Gina Rodriguez does her best playing a thin role. We learn little about who she is outside of what happens to her. She gets trapped by everyone, not just the gang, but also the authorities out to stop Lino. It’s a back and forth of threats lobbied against her, played out in a repetitive fashion. Gloria will tell someone that she needs help, only to have them turn around and manipulate her into a new scheme. Everyone treats her like a puppet, never taking into account that she is an innocent person wedged in the middle of something she has no clue about.
Lino is the most problematic character. He is portrayed as the “bad criminal with a charismatic personality.” He willingly shoots people at point blank range, but then in the next scene we’re supposed to grow close to him because he talks about how he grew up in America and dreamt of owning land for himself and his family. He forces Gloria to undress in front of him (in a very skeevy scene) but then will teach her how to use a gun, thus becoming the spark for her growing strength. Are supposed to like this guy because he takes her out to meet his family and gives her tasty food to eat? I’m sorry, but I didn’t buy any of this. Lino is not interesting enough of a character to get away with the cruelty he treats Gloria with.
Advertisements would have us believe that this is an action-packed thriller with plenty of set pieces. But the reality is that the action is lackluster and uninspired. There are number of shootouts, but they don’t come off as exciting. The pacing and editing has a very mundane style. Much of this has to do with the fact that we aren’t given much empathy for any of these people besides Gloria. These are just random faces shooting at generic enemies. What’s even more odd is how Gloria is able to survive many of these encounters. There are more than a few instances where she’ll jump out and run right into the cross fire without being scratched. And in the worst example (depicted in the trailer) she actually walks through a shootout in slow motion, as though she developed a supernatural power to repel bullets.
The biggest issue of Miss Bala is that it has no pressing need to explore any of its themes. The misogyny is mishandled so that the film becomes exactly what it’s trying to preach against. There’s no bigger examination of the crime or smuggling problems along the U.S./Mexico border, and the corruption of government and law enforcement agencies is an afterthought. I came away not having much to think about from what I’ve just seen, and that’s not a good thing.