Tracking a treacherous journey north
'Sin Nombre" is based on real facts of life for certain Central Americans. Some try to make it to the United States, in part, by riding freight trains that mosey north. Gangs set out to rob them, despite their relative poverty. Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, making his first feature, "Sin Nombre" treats these developments with an unworkable mix of grisliness and manipulative sentimentality. It's much more believable when people are being kicked like soccer balls than when they're behaving out of goodness.
The film initially crisscrosses between a young Mexican gang member named Casper (Edgar Flores) and a young Honduran woman named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan). He's ambivalently caught up in gang life, roping in a puny new recruit named Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), spending time with his girlfriend (Diana Garcia), who has only a vague sense of his dangerous life, and expressing obligatory fealty to Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the vicious, flamboyantly tattooed gang leader.
Sayra is heading north in an attempt to enter the United States with her brother, uncle, and estranged father. They, along with scores of others, ride atop the train, which is where she and Casper find each other. He and his pals are there to commit a robbery, and they settle on Sayra and her family. A turn of events leaves Lil Mago dead and Casper on the run, while Lil Mago's bereft disciples attempt to track down Casper and obliterate him.
What follows is a chase film, love story, road picture, gangland turf-war flick, and border-bound suspense thriller, most of which is oddly apolitical and strangely devoid of a point. The last half of "Sin Nombre" is predicated on Sayra's absurd attraction to Casper. You could explain to me why she does what she does, but it makes no emotional sense. Her actions are a function of screenwriting. Were she to choose differently the movie would end after 40 minutes.
Of course, then Fukunaga wouldn't get to sanitize his gangsta protagonist and stage so many extremely polished shootouts. Too often, "Sin Nombre" feels made to advertise that the 31-year-old director, an NYU film school grad, might be a more-than-credible director of Hollywood action films. Much more care has been lavished on the slashings and assaults than on maintaining any true human connection. Fukunaga is confident enough to balance the hunt for Casper with the couple's bonding. It's the tone of the movie's two sides - action and stillness, graphic violence and romantic melodrama - that don't cohere.
A hit at Sundance this year, "Sin Nombre" evokes other movies - namely the more problematic "City of God," which gave brutal gang thuggery a pornographic kick. Fukunaga did research in Mexico and based his story on the exploits of Mara Salvatrucha, a Los Angeles gang with franchises in Central America. The gang stuff feels authentically grim but rote. Any documentary or realist impulse the director has wilts under his sensationalistic touch.
What's encouraging about the director is his gentle eye for passing detail: Casper napping in a car or dozing off on that train under the moonlight. There's the harsh but elegant image of Mexican kids hurling rocks and anti-immigrant expletives at the Central Americans passing through their town on the train. It's a visual rhyme for an earlier shot of people tossing up oranges.
And yet the characters come a distant second to the glee the movie takes in being a thriller. The wide shots of rail riders perched on the roofs of train cars suggest human barnacles. It seems like an apt metaphor for the movie's sense of characterization. "Sin Nombre" feels sincere. But I didn't leave it with the expectation that Fukunaga would be moving further into earthbound tales of young women like Sayra. I'm eager to be proven wrong.