You probably don't know the name Cary Joji Fukunaga. You will. This debut director's amazing Sin Nombre has already won some major film awards, including Best Director AND Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, and he's already been signed to a development deal by a fantastic studio that doesn't often put rookie filmmakers on the payroll - Focus Features (home of Milk, Brokeback Mountain, and many more). And it won't be long into Sin Nombre before you know why. A shockingly confident, riveting, dark examination of life from the South end of Mexico to the U.S. border, Sin Nombre is as memorable and well-made as nearly anything you're going to see this season and probably through the rest of the year. With a blend of striking, nearly majestic photography and a writer who shows an amazing ability to weave together a story for such a young artist, Sin Nombre is definitely the debut of the season and will likely hold that title in nine months time. It's a must-see.
Sin Nombre tells two interweaving stories, that of Casper (Edgar Flores), a gang member in Tapachula, Chiapas in Mexico, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who's trying to get to New York by riding on train roofs across Mexico with two of her family members. Casper is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha Brotherhood, a Mexican gang that is heavily tattooed and shockingly violent. Casper brings a young kid to the gang for induction and they beat him and then force him to kill a rival gang member (who is then fed to the dogs). This is a film not for the faint-of-heart.
Casper may be stuck in a world of violence, but he's found love with Marta Marlene (Diana Garcia), a girl he has tried to keep secret from the gang, particularly because he's often seeing her when he's supposed to be patrolling his turf. When Marta accidentally makes an appearance on the Mara Salvatrucha scene, the leader of the gang attempts to rape her and accidentally kills her. Casper is a wreck and a series of decisions leads him into the life of Sayra, a Honduran teen heading to the States with her uncle and her formerly estranged father. Casper and Sayra end up needing each other but not for the reasons you'd expect.
Fukunaga spent weeks on the ground in Mexico, working his way in and out of the gangs and even riding the trains. The research paid off. Sin Nombre has both an artist's eye and the feel of a documentarian shining light into an area of the world and its people that hasn't been depicted in quite this way. While watching Sin Nombre, I was reminded of several great films about both the gang experience (City of God, for example, although Fukunaga's film is far less stylized) and the journey of immigration (El Norte). There is striking visual imagery, a shot on top of the train after a crucial moment in the film has haunted me for weeks, but also a gritty, on-the-ground feel to the entire movie.
Sin Nombre is about people living life on a razor thin line of survival. When you wake up on an average day, you probably know what's going to happen for most of those days. On an “average day,” Casper doesn't know if he's going to have to kill or be killed. Sayra, on her long journey, doesn't know if she'll be caught by border patrol, attacked by strangers, or lose the fragile family she's only recently reformed. These are people making decisions in the blink of an eye that will forever change them. You won’t soon forget them.
Sin Nombre is a brutal, dark film that is one of the most moving and memorable that I've seen in a long time, thanks largely to stunning performances by Flores and Gaitan and Fukunaga's masterful direction. A few of the coincidences mount up to, if not over, at least close to the breaking point in the final act, but there's so much to like about Sin Nombre that a few elements of the finale that might feel a little forced are easy to overlook. After a few lackluster cinematic years, with last week's brilliant Goodbye Solo leading Roger Ebert to call Ramin Bahrani "the new great American director" and this week bringing one of the best debuts in a long time, 2009 is shaping up to be a year in which exciting new voices are finally added to the cinematic landscape. It's about time.
Rating: FOUR BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: April 3rd, 2009
Starring: Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, Kristian Ferrer, and Diana Garcia
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Writer: Cary Fukunaga