Review: Sin Nombre Will Knock the Wind Out of You

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a teenage girl reuniting with her father to join him on a trek from Honduras to a dream life in the United States. Willy (Edgar Flores) is a member of Mara Salvatrucha, a ruthless Mexico City gang trying to escape.
By  · Published on March 20th, 2009

When I normally think of a road trip movie, it involves three or four drunken college types dragging down Keystones and going on wacky adventures while they seek out the girl of their dreams/an easy lay/nothing at all in particular. The other variation involves a journey of self discovery and as many mind-expanding drugs as possible. But as odd as it seems, Sin Nombre is a road trip movie that happens to take place on top of a train with one hundred or so immigrants attempting to subvert the harshness of life in exchange for the ability to create something better. One could define it as an immigration film, if it absolutely needed to be defined at all, but if it is – it’s one of very few immigration films that eschews politics and focuses more on the things that people are leaving and less on the place that they’re headed. More so, it’s a movie about discovery, leaving something behind, and growing in the journey.

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a teenage girl reuniting with her father to join him on a trek from Honduras to a dream life in the United States. Willy (Edgar Flores) is a member of Mara Salvatrucha, a ruthless Mexico City gang, who has just recruited 12-year old Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) to a life of patrolling territory, hanging out with homies, and killing their enemies. When the leader of MS kills Willy’s girlfriend, he defies the gang and has to escape on the immigrant train headed for the United States border.

What results from a fairly straight-forward premise is an brutal, sharp look at two people struggling against the confinement of their social situations. For Willy, life in the gang is inevitable. In order to eat, to have a family, to have an income he has to give himself to the group mentality and the leadership that demands unyielding strength and violent ethics. Interestingly, Sayra’s situation is never fully fleshed out which gives the impression that the move is not entirely her choice – a move that happens to work very well within the character arc.

The gravity of the story is punctuated by moments of sweetness – Willy visiting his girlfriend, Sayra offering Willy some food on the train, his promising to be there with her even after she crosses. Somehow, a rose grows up amongst the thorns.

What first-time director Cary Fukunaga has done is to create a beautiful love story between two friends that emerge from some of the worst possible conditions. In fact, those harsh conditions encapsulate the film – they are a constant presence even as the characters race toward the perceived boundaries, aching to cross over into another life where not only does the grass seem to be greener, there actually seems to be grass. In this way, he leaves politics at the door while also deeply humanizing the immigration process. To make the subject matter even more rounded (especially for American audiences who may walk into the theater with pre-conceived notions whatever they may be) Fukunaga has written a story that investigates and portrays the brutish reality of immigration at the southern Mexico/Guatemala border and within Mexico itself.

Woven together with deftness, the film shows several confrontations within and between the gangs that burn themselves into memory. Yet, the scenes are never rushed. In particular, the scene between gang leader Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta) and Willy’s girlfriend Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) holds a sense of foreboding from the moment that it begins and builds slowly until he pushes her, pulls back on the rear of her jeans, and does what you know he’s been planning since he first starts talking to her. That and many other scenes are built not with the haste of an amateur filmmaker, but with the expertise of a more well-seasoned veteran.

Of course, much of the credit also goes to the actors handling their roles with dark honesty and a sense of simplicity. There is never any pretense or overstatement of the violence – it is treated with the severity that it deserves and nothing more. Although Edgar Flores is the focal point of the movie and handles the character with skill, the movie’s real stand out is Paulina Gaitan who can say more with a bat of her eyelashes than most actors can do with a full monologue.

The look of the film is beautifully disgusting. Much of Mexico City’s poorest areas pour onto the screen with the mange and disease that one would expect. The rust of the train yard, the dirt-caked housing, the grind of the countryside. You can almost smell the landscape. This is contrasted by wide-scoping shots on top of the train as it crawls along the track through some beautiful areas, but even the goal of the film – the river crossing into Texas – isn’t stylized or glorified. At the end of the trail, the two adventurers are headed for a brown body of nearly standing water surrounded by prickly mesquite trees and dead coyotes.

It could easily be a slow-moving, quiet piece that tries too hard to add gravity to the characters with longing looks and silent conversations. Luckily, it’s got a ton of action and violence in it so that when a quiet moment does occur it has far more weight than it might have.

Sweet, severe and haunting, Sin Nombre is a story about hope for people that shouldn’t even know the word. It tells an endearing story, shares the lives of two compassionate yet real characters, and offers a sense of what life for some is like. It’s difficult to believe this is a first feature attempt. Fukunaga is certainly a director to be on the look out for in the future, and I for one will anxiously be awaiting his next project.

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