Movie review by Greg Carlson
While many tales of illegal immigration made for the American movie market focus on the drama generated from crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature film “Sin Nombre” finds its footing in the arduous, perilous legs of the south to north journeys that happen long before Texas is in sight. Intertwining two initially separate stories that merge into a single narrative, “Sin Nombre” will appeal to moviegoers intrigued by its director’s visual command, observational style, and interest in details of more than one subculture. “Sin Nombre” is by no means a perfect movie, but Fukunaga displays enough confidence and assuredness to strongly recommend a viewing.
Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) agrees to jump a northbound freight train with her uncle and her widower father, who has started a new family in New Jersey and wants his daughter to accompany him back to the States. Meanwhile, in Tapachula, Chiapas in the south of Mexico, the iron grip of the Mara Salvatrucha/La Mara/MS-13 gang tightens around young member Casper (Edgar Flores) and his protégé Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), a preteen on the verge of being inducted into the ruthless organization. Fukunaga expertly negotiates the introductory segments of the film, revealing just enough information about the characters to intensify viewer interest. Especially seductive are the images of the communal structures of the MS-13 syndicate. Elaborate facial and body tattoos, special handshakes and greeting gestures, and unwavering loyalties and oaths serve as vivid symbols of a clan whose deadly lawlessness inspires a chilling fatalism in its youthful adherents.
Once the powerful exposition is out of the way, “Sin Nombre” slips a little bit. Given the numbers of small distribution and releasing companies owned or heavily subsidized by major studios and/or corporate parents, the heavily fractured American art house movement may no longer be fairly called an independent cinema. “Sin Nombre” was developed at the Sundance Institute’s labs, a pedigree that often engenders as many liabilities as assets in an emerging artist’s work. True, without the support of Sundance, a movie like “Sin Nombre” would not see a theatrical release, but many critics have expressed disappointment in the screenplay’s eagerness to smooth out rough edges that might otherwise depict Casper as less angelic and Sayra as less naïve.
Reviewer Scott Tobias recently wrote of the movie, “Then there’s the matter of the script, which is sadly endemic of the earnest, conventional, issue-oriented mediocrities produced and rewarded by Sundance nearly every year.” Tobias’ argument is most effectively applied to the last third of the movie, when events – however unexpected and often clever – rely too much on a layer of sentimentality and self-sacrifice that perhaps gives undue credit to each of the movie’s key protagonists.
Despite the flaws, however, “Sin Nombre” is filled with so many stirring railway visuals that the movie reinforces the adage that trains and cameras are a match made in filmmaking heaven. From “The General” and “Beggars of Life” to “Sullivan’s Travels” and “Days of Heaven,” not to mention several examples from Hitchcock, moviemakers have long embraced the kinetic, magnetic power of the locomotive on the big screen. Like the other films mentioned above, “Sin Nombre” appreciates the dynamism and beauty, as well as the possibilities of escape and transcendence, offered by the sight of a moving train.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/18/09.