IN CRIME-RIDDEN northern Mexico, a lower-middle-class girl (Stephanie Sigman) yearns to become a beauty queen.
Unluckily, on the day of try-outs for the Miss Baja California pageant she crosses paths with a gang of drug traffickers who plot to use her for their own ends.
Though the collision of glamour and crime could be played for black comedy, Gerardo Naranjo's thriller has few if any laughs. Still, it's too flashy to be truly grim: the kind of stylistic display where the camera performs as much or more than the actors do.
The story carries us through a series of concrete, three-dimensional spaces, most of them fairly mundane: corridors, hotel rooms, highways (a good portion of the running time is taken up by driving sequences).
Tension builds gradually in muscle-flexing tracking shots, where threats lurk in the background or just offscreen.
Propelled from one horrendous situation to another, the heroine rarely shows much will of her own, nor a personality that would make her more than a visual reference point for the camera to pivot around.
By regularly filming Sigman with her back to the viewer, Naranjo makes clear this is a deliberate choice - presumably a political statement about a society that treats women as objects.
Ultimately, even if these good intentions are taken at face value, the schematic approach leads to a certain monotony.
Miss Bala is impressive and exciting for its first hour, but once its message has been delivered there is little left to add.