Within the first fifteen minutes of Sin Nombre, El Casper (Edgar Flores), as a father might teach his son to hold a bat, helps the twelve-year-old El Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) shoot a captive, rival gang member in the face with a homemade pipe gun. Killing an enemy is the second right of passage into the Mara Salvatrucha brotherhood (the first is getting beaten by a group of men for thirteen seconds). In one of the few moments of reprieve in the film, the director Cary Fukunaga chooses not to show the actual dismembering of the body. But a moment later we see the entrails dropped into a bowl for the dogs to eat.
Sin Nombre is Fukunaga’s first feature effort. He has been deservedly applauded for his debut, if for no other reason than he’s a Scando-Japanese American, and his subjects in the film are Hispanic and speak colloquial Spanish. To work in Honduras and Mexico with a foreign cast is at the very least ambitious, and makes Joe Swanberg look cowardly for keeping his inert characters in an American bedroom. There is no timidity to Fukunaga’s style, nor is there much flare.
Compared to last years’ Slumdog Millionaire, in which Danny Boyle exhibited all the directorial tenderness of a suicide bomber, Sin Nombre is quieter—and more shocking. Trying to appreciate Boyle’s India was like touring Mumbai during a volcanic eruption. Boyle wouldn’t train the camera on a subject longer than it took to film a line of dialogue, and the frenetic pace was distracting rather than compelling. Even when the proprietor of the orphanage blinds one of his wards with acid, with the camera cutting back and forth, you feel at best a sentimental horror. But you don’t experience any more agony than you would smell curry had Boyle rubbed cardamon on the lens. The violence in Sin Nombre, though, as portrayed by the cinematographer Adriano Goldman, is austere, and the tragedies haunting the characters feel abrupt, senseless, and frightening; in other words, authentic.
Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.
Sin Nombre, on the other hand, earns its catharsis. That’s in part because the ablution is less complete, and the expurged sins more abhorrent. The characters and their struggles seem real, in no small part because many of the actors hail from the neighborhoods where the film was shot. Some of the Mareros in the film are Mareros in real life; they didn’t need fake tattoos. But that is not to say the film is flawless. The acting is consistently solid, but Flores—the nucleus of Sin Nombre—as the quiet and brooding Casper, feels inaccessible. Even when he opens up, briefly near the end of the film, we see only a moment of warmth, and this softer disposition isn’t completely convincing. It’s preceded by too much unmitigated rage.
For all the murderers and rapists and rape victims that populate the film, only Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), the leader of the local Mara Salvatrucha gang, displays exquisite dynamism. He vacillates between tenderness and brutality, and at his best, holds onto both emotions simultaneously. He is as ominous a character to look at as I can remember—his face is black with tattoos—but early in the film, while overseeing Casper and Smiley as they shoot the prisoner in the face, he holds his infant son proudly, kissing him on the forehead. The scene gains all its power from this juxtaposition of paternal love and unapologetic violence. The murder, made all the more horrible by the presence of the boy (who we know must grow up to be a killer like his father), lays out the ethics of the film: honor is paramount, and each life has a shifting, unequal value.
This is exceptionally difficult material to handle in a first film. If at the end I felt somewhat disconnected from El Casper—whom we follow from Tepachula to the Texas border—I wonder if it wasn’t Fukunaga’s intention. After all, Sin Nombre is not a film about absolution. It is about immigration and violence and the trappings of poverty. Rather than cauterizing wounds like Boyle did with Slumdog, Fukunaga opens them further. He doesn’t canonize his characters, because every act of heroism is bound to an act of cowardice. Accordingly, Sin Nombre is not a charming film. It doesn’t make you feel better for having seen it. And that’s why it’s important.
By James Kaelan