01/19/2012 08:30 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Movie Review: Miss Bala

Dreams not only die-hard -- they're trampled to death and then mocked, in Gerardo Naranjo's nonstop nightmare, Miss Bala.

The Mexican film, inexplicably left off the short list for the foreign-language Oscar, is a high-speed action tale, told through the eyes of a helpless victim of that action. She's just along for the ride, through no choice of her own and with no choice about jumping off. She's a passive observer who suddenly is turned into an unwitting and unwilling participant to something she never quite figures out. But when you've got a gun in your face, the decisions are made for you.

Her name is Laura (Stephanie Sigman) and, when we first meet her, she's just a teen-ager hoping to get a shot at becoming Miss Baja in a beauty pageant in Tijuana. She and her friend go to the sign-up and are told to come back the next day. That night, the two of them go to party at a club, where her friend, Suzu, hooks up with a dangerous-looking crowd.

Laura heads off to the bathroom -- and sees a crew of masked, armed men entering the club. She hides, but she hears gunshots and automatic weapons firing. There's been a bloodbath, taking out the crew inside -- a group of DEA agents, as it turns out -- that Laura has escaped. She hides until the police arrive, then sneaks out of the club and finds a place to crash.

When she sees the newspapers the next day about the club massacre, she tries to report what she's seen, flagging down a cop and asking to be taken to the police station. Instead, he drives her directly to the boss of the cartel that shot up the club the night before.

Instead of being killed, she becomes the pawn of the gang's laconic leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez). She's threatened with the death of her family and herself unless she cooperates -- and winds up as a combination gofer/dupe/pawn, as well as bait, in the battle between Lino's organization, the Star, and government officials who are attempting to crack down on the rampant drug trafficking (and enabling police corruption).

She endures a hellish 48 hours in which she is kept on a short tether by Lino and his men, forced to perform various tasks (deliver a car here, pick up cash there) of which she is both ignorant and innocent. But innocence is easily besmirched, at least in the eyes of the law.

In the midst of all this, she does get her crack at the Miss Baja title (the film's title, translated, means Miss Bullet) -- but it's just part of the ongoing nightmare from which Laura can't seem to awaken.

Naranjo sets a torrid pace and has a real find in Sigman, a former model. With her wide eyes and expressive face, she conveys feelings that move from hope to fear to anger to hopelessness, as this woman does whatever is necessary to stay alive and keep her family safe. Hernandez is blunt and scary as the crime boss, who uses Laura as casually as he would a dust-rag.

Given the number of murders and the state of law enforcement in the war on drugs in Mexico, it's not hard to imagine that this is, in fact, a fairly accurate depiction of conditions near the border. Whether fact or fiction, however, Miss Bala is a brutally exciting ride, despite the downbeat conclusions it draws.

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