A revved-up hybrid of City of God and El Norte, nurtured and probably tamed by the Sundance Institute, US writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut Sin Nombre, or Nameless, may not be as generic as its title suggests, what with its impressive landscapes, its novel and genuinely chilling brutality, and its surprisingly exquisite score (courtesy of Hollywoodland composer Marcelo Zarvos). But this infernal tour of Mexico’s decidedly unfriendly railway lines and its most grotesque nests of rural gang violence is nevertheless an obedient child of Hollywood convention. Amidst all the fighting, fleeing and filleting onscreen, another battle is being waged between a young filmmaker’s vigorous desire to invoke gritty, incendiary realism and increasingly frequent injections of sentimentalist deus ex machina. As we charge toward the climax there’s not much ambiguity surrounding which of these opposing forces will win out.
Willy, a.k.a. Casper (Edgar Flores), at first seems to represent just about the worst thing in his local Southern Chiapas branch of the horrifyingly vicious Mara Salvatrucha, founded decades ago in Los Angeles. He may not have erased his face with tribal tattoos like the gang’s ultra-scary alpha male leader—who provides us with the creepiest image of parenthood since Mike Tyson graced the Father’s Day issue of GQ—but as we meet him he’s ushering in a new member that still looks a couple of years shy of puberty. Sure, Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) may have ended up in Mara Salvatrucha anyway, but if Willy didn’t recruit him at such a tender age the kid might have at least had a chance. Smiley’s initiated into their fold in the customary style: he’s ordered to kill an unarmed and terrified member of a rival gang held captive for just such a ritual. Smiley’s victim will soon be chopped up into dog food, just more grist for the mill, but the experience seals Smiley’s fate. Willy, whose tattooed tear is Fukunaga’s little giveaway that he’s really not such a bad egg, will steadily move toward redemption. Things for Smiley on the other hand will only get worse.
Despite the high drama surrounding all that unfolds around Willy, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) will emerge as our real protagonist. Her trajectory will take her from her Honduran village, hopping freight trains northward in the hope of making it all the way to New Jersey, where some family and a presumably better life awaits. Where the movies have more commonly explored the hazards of clawing one’s way onto US soil, the illegal migrants in Sin Nombre are clearly lucky if they even make it that far. Willy and Sayra will cross paths, and once he’s made a violent break with Mara Salvatrucha, Willy will become Sayra’s designated protector, even though she may be in more danger what with Willy’s ex-comrades on his tail. There could even be a love interest here, but you have to give credit to Fukunaga for steering clear of cursory romance in the midst of a story to desperate and blood-soaked to really make room for it. It’s one of the few deviations from cliché Fukunaga manages to hold onto.
With its images of migrants clinging to nocturnal trains like flies on a wounded animal, Sin Nombre leaves a deep impression, a sense of the trail of fear and ambition that branches off into the distance far beyond the relative serenity of the US/Mexico border. Above all, we’re given here a striking portrait of a world still on the move against all odds, of the Americas as a largely lawless wilderness where shelter is either absent or shrouded in bureaucracy and the worst kind of opportunism is able to flourish. In a way it’s almost a better documentary than it is a drama. It makes you wonder how Fukunaga will distinguish himself from here on out. Outsiders have often made great storytellers, but this gringo brought just a little too much luggage with him on his travels south.