Excelente. Una maravillosa pelÃcula. FantÃ¡stico. And many other superlatives that I no longer remember from high school Spanish.
By all standard measures, Sin Nombre should not succeed. It boasts no major stars, no big-name director behind the camera, and it’s subtitled. Gasp! But for all of these reasons and more, it absolutely deserves to be a sleeper hit. Because Sin Nombre is filled with heart and pain and mistakes and hope — and it carries them off better than most of the films that have come out so far this year.
Writer and director Cary Fukunaga weaves together two heart-wrenching stories atop a train in Mexico. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is trying to get from Honduras to the U.S. with her father, who was recently deported from the states and is desperate to return to his wife and children still there. Though he’s little more than a stranger to Sayra, having left her as a child when her mother died, she’s convinced that life with him in the land of opportunity — New Jersey — will be better.
Also riding the train is Willy (Edgar Flores) or, as he’s known to his gang brothers, El Casper. Casper is also desperate to get to the states, but unlike Sayra he’s not running towards a better life, he’s running away from death. Turning against his gang in an attempt to break free, Casper hopes to disappear into the landscape like a ghost. With Casper providing the drive and Sayra the direction, the pair forms an unlikely bond.
Making his feature-film debut, Fukunaga sets the bar high for future endeavors. First of all, Sin Nombre is visually stunning. Long shots of the land as the train rolls by are absolutely breathtaking. Juxtaposed with abject poverty and urban scenes of chaos and warring, Fukunaga creates a contrast that seems irreconcilable. Almost like a young, innocent girl and a hard, gang-trained guy finding common ground.
One of Sin Nombre‘s greatest virtues is that it can’t be defined by one single label: It’s a thriller about gangland wars; it’s a romance between two strangers finding comfort in each other; and it’s a drama exploring the consequences of life and the decisions that forever alter a destiny. It works because of Fukunaga’s careful direction and two utterly captivating performances by Flores and Gaitan.
Flores faces a great challenge with Casper. First and foremost, Casper is a cold-blooded killer who feeds his enemies — men who have done him no wrong other than belong to a different gang — to dogs. Even more appalling than Casper’s lifestyle is that he recruits others into it, including the young Smiley (Kristian Ferrer). If Flores were only able to evoke sympathy for Casper, it would still be considered a successful performance; that Casper transforms back to Willy, the man that might have existed outside of the gang, is proof that Flores is a masterful actor.
Gaitan has an equally challenging role because it’s hard to know if Sayra is smart, a survivor, a fool, or just in love. Her choices seem idiotic in the moment, attaching herself the worst element possible, but Gaitan brings an inner strength and fire to the role that makes Sayra an immoveable force. Scenes that could have easily turned to melodrama are handled with a precision that belies her age.
In perhaps the creepiest role, young Ferrer does a wonderful job as the new gang member. As the movie progresses, Smiley transforms from a young, sweet kid to a killer and Ferrer brings first humor then horror to the role. It’s both terrifying and captivating.
This film is obviously a labor of love for writer and director Fukunaga. The immersion into the culture of those trying to reach the United States is reminiscent of a certain other underdog picture from last year, Slumdog Millionaire. Filmed in the actual train yards where people wait to head north, the film’s authentic locations heighten the stakes and create an almost palpable tension with every mile traveled. Fukunaga takes his time developing the story, not rushing the meeting of Sayra and Casper, which ensures that when their lives collide into one another, it is all the more powerful.
Sin Nombre is ultimately a story of hope and redemption, but at what cost? Both Sayra and Casper have to pay a price — hers will buy a better future and his will pay a debt he owes for his misdeeds. The problem with the train they are riding is that the tracks were laid years before they ever climbed on board. No matter what happens while they ride — whether they fall in love or atone for sins — their destination is predetermined. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and impossible to look away.