Sin Nombre (Mexico/United States, 2009)

April 07, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sin Nombre Poster

The dream is reaching America. The nightmare is undertaking the journey to get there. But you know your current circumstances aren't too promising when New Jersey is represented as a paradise. Writer/director Cary Fukunaga's film is about illegal immigration only on the surface, and almost none of its running time transpires within the boundaries of the United States. Instead, it's about the factors that cause some individuals to risk incarceration, deportation, and even death for a chance to cross the border and escape cycles of poverty, disempowerment, and gang violence.

Sin Nombre opens by establishing characters who are separated not only by geography but by culture as well. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is about to embark on a journey with her father and uncle from her homeland of Hondouras across Mexico into Texas then to New Jersey. The trip is expected to be long and fraught with difficulties but seems to offer more to the young woman than would be available if she remained at home. Meanwhile, north of Sayra in Mexico, Willy (Edgar Flores), nicknamed "Casper," is a gang member involved in the indoctrination of a new recruit, 12-year old Smiley (Kristian Ferrer). Willy's gang, led by the fearsome, multi-tatooed Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) is preparing to go to war with a rival group. When Willy lies to Lil Mago about his whereabouts one day - he was spending time with his girlfriend, Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), instead of helping Smiley make his first kill - the first seeds of a tragedy are sewn. This tragedy will result in Willy and Sayra meeting.

Sin Nombre packs an amazing amount of material into a little more than 90 minutes of screen time and, in the process, presents a pair of well-developed characters. Willy's life is more fully fleshed out than Sayra's, but that makes sense in the overall scheme of things. The film's narrative thrust is about Willy finding redemption and making a spiritual trek that parallels his physical journey. Willy has sins to atone for and, when an action closes off a return to his old life, he must cope with his present circumstances. His legacy, as represented by his protégé, Smiley, illustrates why gang influence is so difficult to break. For underdogs and outcasts, participation in a gang provides an opportunity to be respected through fear and intimidation. It's a brotherhood or sisterhood for children who have no siblings.

Although crossing into Texas represents an impediment, Sin Nombre is more concerned with the difficulties and dangers that arise before that climactic part of the trip. In order to make it to the United States, Sarya must evade capture, injury, and death in Mexico. When she meets Willy, her chances of success increase but so too does the possibility that she will become caught in crossfire, the unfortunate victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The film's director, American Cary Fukunaga, is making his feature debut, and it's a stunning one. His presentation of details about the trip to the north made by so many along the Mexican railroads evidences the verisimilitude of someone who has investigated the process. Trains become mobile ramshackle villages for wanderers who spread out on boxcar roofs huddled under plastic garbage bags and cluster inside the cars around carefully controlled fires. And when the train pulls into a station where there are known to be inspectors and border guards, the "passengers" get off before the stop is reached, race around the station, then re-board on the other side. The trains don't move fast but they cover a lot of ground and save the legs and feet of many nomads.

One senses that Fukunaga had at least two points he wanted to highlight by telling this story. In the first place, Sin Nombre illustrates the power and terror associated with gang-related violence, something that is on the rise in Mexico and has recently been in the news. Secondly, Fukunaga offers a perspective of some of the tribulations undergone by illegal immigrants. Sin Nombre does not take a "pro" or "con" stance on the issue, but shows that many who embark upon the crossing do so only after enduring hardship.

The two young leads, Edgar Flores and Paulina Gaitan, provide believable performances, with Flores' being a little more eye opening that Gaitan's. This is due in part to the range of emotions circumstances force upon Willy. Flores is never anything less than completely natural. The chemistry between the two is effectively understated. They do not fall in love in the conventional sense but they come to rely upon and care for one another. What happens at the end may be inevitable but the characters react to it in exactly the way one expects given the manner in which their relationship develops.

Ultimately, Sin Nombre is not a happy motion picture, although it's not a complete downer (it concludes on a hopeful note). It moves rapidly and there's quite a bit of tension. In the end, the average viewer will feel as if he or she experienced something rather than acting as a mere observer of characters going through the motions. This quality, coupled with the intelligence and perspicacity of the screenplay, makes Sin Nombre more substantive than the average thriller/road movie.

Sin Nombre (Mexico/United States, 2009)

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast: Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, Kristian Ferrer, Diana Garcia, Tenoch Huerta Mejia
Screenplay: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1