Sin Nombre feels like good Mexican food; there’s not much to it but a few basic ingredients, but when properly assembled with care and a hint of authenticity, it’s outstanding. Cary Fukunaga in his writer/director feature debut takes a simple and almost high school Shakespearean plot and layers it with gentle flourishes and powerful performances. His cast seems plucked from the barrio, a horde of menacing gangsters and simple day laborers. It’s tense and tragic, Hitchcockian by way of Honduras, and builds to a vicious kick in the ribs finale that even if it seems obvious and fated still crushes the very breath out of you. It’s a hell of a visceral flick, interspersed with gorgeous landscape camerawork that could have been painted by angels. For such an ugly story, it’s told beautifully.
Produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, Fukunaga knew he was working with a loaded deck. I’d gloat about giving an immigrant a camera and seeing magic, but Fukunaga was born in Oakland. Still, he’s got an understanding of plight that resonates throughout his story. Willy, a teenage thug tagged by his gang as El Casper, loves a girl from outside his hood. She’s angry because she thinks he’s keeping her hidden to sleep with other girls, but he’s just scared about keeping her out of the reach of the ghouls who make up his gang. Earlier, we see the horde of tattooed menace wallop the bejeezus out of boy no more than ten — El Smiley — as part of his initiation. When Willy’s love meekly sneaks into a gang meeting in a graveyard, the leader Mago, a shaved headed demon with a huge MS tattooed across his face like a monster’s leer, offers to take her home. He tries to rape her, and when she fights back, he accidentally kills her. Unapologetically, he tells Casper, and tells him not to worry because he’ll find another. That’s part of what makes Sin Nombre so chilling, the casual atmosphere of violence and menace. Brutal beatings and gunfights are just part of the background in this Mexico.
Sayra, a beautiful young girl recently reunited with her newly deported father in Honduras, decides to accompany her father and uncle on the next attempt to traverse all of Mexico into America and then to New Jersey. The trip takes them across a river and through a strip search into the Mexican frontier, and that’s just the casual part. They’re forced to wait for a freight train that travels the course of the country, a hellish jaunt that takes them past towns where the children are as likely to throw tacos and kisses as rocks and jeers. Hundreds of people travel this way, not inside the train, but on top of the train under tarps to protect from sudden torrential downpours and in the same filthy clothes for weeks. This is another effective element to the film, the communal squalor the people constantly endure.
Mago enlists Casper and Smiley, armed with machetes and homemade guns, to help him rob the peasants on the train. Mago peels back Sayra’s tarp, finding her alluring, and attempts to rape her. Without warning or emotion, Casper whacks Mago on the neck with the machete. It was so grim and offhand, I hardly realized what happened until I saw Mago’s neck spurting blood. Casper kicks his corpse off the train, and then sends Smiley away, leaving himself stranded on the train to suffer the vengeance of whatever is coming. He knows his life is fated for doom anyway, so he decides to use his life to save Sayra. Sayra allies herself to him when Casper just wants her to stay away for her own well-being. He’s fated for death, whereas she has her whole life ahead of her. The rest of the film is the hellish journey by train through the blasted landscape of Mexico. Shantytowns and toothless abuelas that await them at every depot, where the border patrol could be waiting or advanced bands of the gangs to exact their revenge on Casper. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, without a forced romance. Sayra feels devoted to Casper for keeping her virginity intact, and Casper paid a debt to a stranger when he couldn’t save the woman he loves.
Sin Nombre rolls onward towards an inevitably cruel ending. No film as steeped in revenge and death can ever truly end happy, but it does manage to end hopefully. Fukunaga avoids cliches or emotional flowery speeches by letting the events play out and the characters act naturally. Something like Crash or Crossing Over would force characters to give teary speeches while staring into the ocean at sunset, explaining how they just want to give their baby formula or a better life or the American dream. In Sin Nombre, the characters trudge through their horrors stoically because it is a grim existence they’ve grown accustomed to.
I was thoroughly impressed with the simply beautiful portrait Fukunaga depicted, but I’m also willing to fully accept I was charmed by the hipster allure of the foreign. Sometimes, as intellectual filmgoers, just because something has subtitles we’re willing to accept it’s somehow more profound. We over-romanticize the mundane with a smug sense of superiority to mere commercial cinemagoers because we read our film. Arthouse doesn’t always mean artistic. But in this case, this story couldn’t have been told in English as effectively.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.