The costumes are the key.
Miss Bala stars Stephanie Sigman as a young woman from Tijuana who goes to the wrong nightclub and gets played as a pawn in a war between drug runners and government agents. The movie flirts with exploitation throughout, yet the way it handles costuming is a testimony to its feminist credentials (Anna Terrazas has costume design credit). Laura, Sigman’s character, rarely gets to choose what she wears. From the organizers of the beauty contest she enters to the cartel leader who kidnaps her to the general who sees her as his prize, she’s constantly being shoved into one outfit or another. Tellingly, though she enters that pageant willingly, unlike the other contestants she doesn’t change into her audition dress until the very last minute.
All of this suggests that Sigman is largely used as a model by the film, and indeed it’s a performance comprised of facial expressions more than dialogue delivery. Sigman still palpably conveys everything Laura is going through: her terror, anger, and disgust, all while projecting a stoic surface. When director and co-writer Gerardo Naranjo is not focused on Sigman’s face, he employs patient pans and uninterrupted tracking shots to create the sense of a neutral observer. And what the camera sees is a woman desperately negotiating her way through an abusive maze of men on both sides of the law. In Miss Bala, sexism doesn’t take sides, but is rather a harrowing, pervasive, dehumanizing force that even turns fashion into a weapon.