Sin Nombre is one of those gripping Mexican dramas that is so far removed from my life, I know I'm not taking as much from it as I should. The themes of retreat and escaping poverty are identifiable to me only in the loosest of metaphors. I have so many passive urges to depart the United States for greener grasses that it's all the more depressing to watch unfortunate souls risk their lives to reach this so-called promised land. Sin Nombre plays as much like a "real-time" documentary as it does a standard feature film. Untold amounts of people are trekking across Mexico atop a train en route to Texas. That happens. The shoddier parts of the inner city are ruled over by inked-up territorialists with the subtlety of Jerry Lewis. I assume, based on other movies of this nature, that this is also accurate enough. Films like this make me wonder, behind all the amazing dramas that come out of Mexico, if George Lopez is the epitome of mainstream Spanish observational humor. Talk about something I'd love to escape.
Director Cary Fukunaga took home the Director's Award at Sundance this year, and for the most part, you can tell why. Of the film's 96-minute runtime, about 70 minutes could be split up and used as postcards. I'm honestly thinking of taking a few DVD captures to store on my computer and probably never look at again. There are gorgeous wide shots of the multi-tiered housing tracts and of trains capped with hundreds of sleep-deprived bodies. When necessary, Fukunaga hovers around his characters, capturing the pain and grit on their faces with clarity. There are extended takes where a handi-cam follows things around. In scenes where the lead character, El Casper (Édgar Flores), is on the run, it looks like a third-world Bourne chase with the quick, flashy pans intercut with shots set further back. Fukunaga is a director with all the classic tricks up his sleeve, but it's the locations and set designs that make the cinematographer work overtime.
So, our eyes are pleased with what's going on. Are our ears and minds in the same place? Yes and no. There is a rich score that switches from lush orchestral pieces to rowdy, traditional Spanish music. I almost swear that I heard an instrumental version of a Mars Volta song in the credits, and another one I couldn't place, but didn't see any recognizable names listed. In any case, it's easy to get swept along by the music throughout the film. However, music aside, one could probably get the same cinematic experience if they were deaf and didn't put on the English subtitles. The actors aren't terrible or anything. Most of them are children of different age groups, and all bring the energy inherent to the roles they play. But there's not a whole lot that anybody says that accomplishes much beyond the obvious. The plot is a cookie-cutter story, and most of the dialogue plays out accordingly. I guess I should take two seconds to explain this plot.
El Casper, or Willy, brings a young friend, El Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), with him to be initiated into a gang of tattooed ruffians, La Mara Salvatrucha. The initiation mentioned is no less than 13 seconds of getting the shit kicked out of him. Their leader, Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta), who looks like Robert LaSardo and the lead singer from Live, has a huge "M" and "S" tatted up on his face, and that's how you can tell he's a real mean mother. Meanwhile, Willy (‘cause that's easier to swallow than El Casper) has a little romance going on the side, which keeps him from attending a gang function. After a brutally stiff punishment for both Willy and his girlfriend, a seed of vengeance is planted. El Smiley is just living it up, though, even though he gets his ass whipped constantly. He's shown how to shoot a homemade pistol, and boom, he's as violent as the rest of these guys. Must be all that heavy metal music and video games he doesn't own.
In a second plot that converges around the halfway point of Sin Nombre, a young girl, Sayra, joins her uncle and absentee father to ride an aboveground railroad (Harriet Tubman be damned) all the way up from Latin America on a two-week trip across Mexico and into the southern tip of Texas. The goal is to reach the father's new family in New Jersey. This is a pretty popular idea, as quite a number of soon-to-be immigrants all set up shop atop the train cars. The actress playing Sayra, Paulina Gaitán, has facial features that impart a beauty and wisdom well beyond her teen years. Her character doesn't share much in the wisdom department however. At the two plots' intersection, Lil' Mago and the two El boys are robbing the "passengers" of their valuables – what little they have. Lil' Mago makes a move on Sayra, and Willy snaps. He pulls a Jason Voorhees, thus sealing his fate as a layered character for sure. Sayra, viewing him as a hero rather than a maniac, tries buddying up to him, and he's just like, no and stuff. And then she's like, come on. And then he's like, well, we can talk. And then she's like, what family? And then he’s like, Willy's gang is all about revenge so they manhunt. Who didn't see any of this coming?
This would have been a rather hackneyed movie if not for the camera work. A lot of it felt real in the moment, but waned quickly after viewing. The violence was quite violent when it came, and there's only the subtlest of hopeful messages here. Plot progression is the blind leading the blind, as no one really has any motivation other than what their character type has to do for the movie to keep on. Gangs = bad neighborhoods = reasons for wanting to migrate north. I get that. Now make it a ghost story. Or add The Bride from Kill Bill to the mix. Or set the whole escape story inside John Malkovich's head.
The film is an eye-full on a wide-screen, and I can only imagine how sparkling a Blu-ray version would be. The sound is crisp and leaves little room to breathe, which isn't a bad thing. There are French subtitles as well. Watching a Spanish movie in French is just asking for a flashback to creep up on you.
Without much on the extras front, the disc does have an interesting commentary track where Fukunaga, who also wrote the film (!!!), and producer Amy Kaufman detail much of the work that went into making the film as authentic as possible. Apparently, it took him four and a half years. I hope the Sundance award was worth it. I balk at a sink full of dishes, and he coordinated hundreds of extras on top of moving train cars. Besides this track, there are deleted scenes that were justly removed. Nothing about them is too interesting. For a film this visual, with such a long gestation period, there should have been some featurettes focusing on this.
I'd recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys the genre, or likes pretty things. I'm sure if I watched it a second time, I would be moved in many of the same ways, and have the same "brush it off my shoulder" attitude that I do now. So I'll probably just watch City of God again instead.