Writer/director Cary Fukunaga’s feature film debut, Sin Nombre, is an astonishing display of the young filmmaker’s talent and potential. It’s the best American independent film of the year thus far, even though it’s entirely in Spanish. The film made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning two awards (for direction in a drama and cinematography) as one of the standout discoveries.
Where most American indie filmmakers are pursuing a new wave of neo-realism—specifically Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar), and Lance Hammer (Ballast)—and having success telling simple stories very well, Fukunaga takes a different route. It’s not that he goes in an entirely different direction; he skews off to the side.
|sin nombre, a movie directed by cary fukunaga. now playing at the uptown theatre, 2906 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets and information, see landmarktheatres.com. also read a.o. scott’s new york times essay on neo-neo-realism and david chen’s interview with cary fukunaga on slashfilm.
What do I mean? Well, for one thing, this film has a plot—and boy, does it move. Some have described Sin Nombre as a thriller, but I think that’s misleading. Indeed, the film has thrilling moments, but it’s a more character driven mini-epic. At a briskly-paced and tight 96 minutes, the film leaves you wanting more, but that’s a good sign of Fukunaga’s confidence as a storyteller. Every scene is important; not a minute of screen time is wasted. Even the tiniest, most intimate moments are serving the characters and the story, propelling it forward.
It begins as a film of two parallel stories. Sayra (Paulina Gaytan), a young woman from Honduras, joins her father and uncle on a journey to cross the Latin American countryside en route to the United States border. She wants to reunite with her mother and sisters in New Jersey. The second story follows El Casper (Edgar M. Flores), or Willy, a young gang member trying to escape his fate. Willy wants out of the gang, a ruthless bunch led by the charismatic but frightening Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta)—a man with tattoos covering almost his entire face and body (now that’s dedication). When tragedy strikes in Willy’s life, and he retaliates, he hops the same train as Sayra and their stories converge.
I understand why some moviegoers don’t take kindly to these films that tell such minimal tales (Wendy and Lucy is nothing more than a girl losing her dog and her trying to get it back). Often, the complaint is that nothing happens. These films aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Sin Nombre is not one of those films. It has adventure, action, sex, and violence, but none of it is exploitative or hyper-stylized. Fukunaga is still going for a sense of documentary realism here; he just wraps it around an exciting, grand, but still very intimate character drama.
The characters are solid, but I think Fukunaga does descend into cliché from time to time. We’ve seen the gangster who wants out of the life plenty of times, and the tale of immigrants crossing into America is by no means revolutionary or new. So as much as I love this film, I realize it’s not breaking new ground. But Sin Nombre is so well constructed, Fukunaga and his crew so acutely aware of the details of the cultures they are portraying, that it rises to the top of the flooded independent film market. The Mexican gang bangers here feel real, not like the stereotypical, low rider-driving, top-button-of-the-shirt-only caricatures who end every sentence with “homes”—caricatures American cinema has portrayed in films like Taylor Hackford’s Blood in, Blood Out, Anotoine Fuqua’s Training Day, and countless others.
Fukunaga captured this reality by experiencing it firsthand. He says in the press notes that “this film is even more personal to me in that I risked my neck to make it, literally. While researching my short Victoria Para Chino (based on the tragedy in Victoria, Texas, where 19 immigrants died inside of a refrigerated trailer) in 2005, I had learned that thousands of Central American immigrants were crossing Mexico atop freight trains, facing a maelstrom of dangers, including bandits, gangs, corrupt police, and the constant threat of deportation back to their home countries. The images conjured up a post-industrial version of our own iconic Wild West, but instead of covered wagons it was a freight train, and instead of the classic Hollywood version of ‘the savages’ it was marauding bandits and tattoo-covered gang members who seemed to have been pulled from general casting in Mad Max.
“And yet this wasn’t the Wild West; it was real and it was happening, is still happening, just south of our border. This was the story I wanted to tell. I followed the first draft with two years of research in Mexico. I spent time with gang members in and out of prisons, interviewed immigrants from Nicaragua on up to the Texas border and, ultimately, traveled with hundreds of them from Tapachula in the south of Mexico to Orizaba, Veracruz. Together we experienced hunger, braved the weather and nights of hidden dangers, and grew to depend on one another. One particularly dark night in Chiapas our train was attacked by bandits; after several gunshots and screams of chaos, a Guatemalan immigrant lay dead—he did not want to give up the little money he had to make this journey.
“In the scope of things, I only shared in these moments of danger briefly, while these immigrants had to continue facing this journey on their own. But what you’ll see onscreen in Sin Nombre is an homage to their true-life stories told from the perspectives of a young girl and a young gang member.”
The performances from the entire cast are raw, and very strong. The two leads, Gaytan and Flores, are especially terrific. You always know where each one is coming from; you never doubt the motivations for their actions. Their multidimensional performances are all the more impressive given that they have little to no acting experience. Tenoch Huerta’s depiction of Lil Mago is also deserving of praise. Like many of the great Scorsese characters, he both charms and repels; he’s a hybrid between Alex from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
The cinematography by Adriano Goldman (together with Craig McKay’s crisp editing) is a marvel here. Almost all of this film’s budget must have ended up on the screen—for being a low-budget feature, it looks great. The vistas are beautiful. The greens of the trees pop while the drab rustiness of the train cuts through the natural landscape. Goldman also pulls off some of the steadiest handheld camera work I’ve ever seen. He avoids the shaky look that is so trendy today. When we see an extended uncut take inside the gang’s lair (called The Destroyer), it’s hard to not think of the famous Steadicam shot in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but this film was shot without a Steadicam—only what Fukunaga has referred to in interviews as Goldman’s “Steadicam legs.”
Those visuals, and the film’s dramatic weight, would be far less memorable and effective if not for Marcelo Zarvos’ score, which I found to be a nice mix of Clint Mansell’s music work for Darren Aronofsky’s films (in particular, sections of the score for The Fountain) and last year’s Dark Knight score (especially the Joker theme; that disturbing hum is present in this film as well), with an appropriate Spanish kick.
Hopefully this wonderful film will not be forgotten while the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival is going on for the next few weeks. If you’re a fan of films with a gritty, well-told story from another culture, films that realistically capture a fully-realized world—like, say, City of God—then Sin Nombre is for you.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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