Monday, January 31, 2011

"Sin Nombre" (2009)

Starring Edgar Flores, Paulina Guitan and Kristyan Ferrer
Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Sin NombreI had this one on my Netflix queue forever and finally got around to watching it.  Sure, not as "forever" as "Good Will Hunting" the other day, but, y'know, whatever.

"Sin Nombre" (or, "Nameless") is the story of Willy (Edgar Flores), a Mexican gang member also known as "El Casper" to his homies.  Willy is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, but he's fallen in love with a young woman, Martha Marlen (Diana Garcia), and he shirks his duties with the gang to spend time with her.  He also hides her from the gang.  Willy has become a mentor to a  young boy just inducted into the gang, known as Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) who has yet to make his first kill or receive his first tattoo. 

One day, Martha follows Willy to a gang meeting, angering the leader of the gang, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia).  Lil Mago attempts to rape Martha, but accidentally kills her instead.  Bitterly, he tells Willy to shrug it off because he'll "just find another."  Not long after, Lil Mago takes Willy and Smiley and they board a train loaded with immigrants headed north with the aim of robbing the immigrants of what meager cash they have.  There, they encounter a small Honduran family - Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), her father Horacio (Gerardo Taracena) and her uncle who are attempting to get into Texas to find relatives in New Jersey.  Lil Mago attempts to rape Sayra, but Willy become enraged, killing him with his machete.  He forces Smiley off the train, and continues on alone, exiling himself from the gang.


Smiley returns to the gang, and tells them what's happened.  The gang's new leader, El Sol (Luis Fernando Pena) wants to send a group to find Willy and kill him, but the gang has become involved in a turf war with a rival gang.  He gives Smiley his first gun and orders him to track down and kill Willy in order to prove he's not a coward.  Willy sets off and finds an affiliate group of gang members in another town who decide to assist him in tracking down Willy.

Meanwhile, on the train, although he is shunned by the other immigrants, Sayra reaches out to Willy, thankful for saving her from Lil Mago.  The two begin to grow closer, and Willy helps Sayra and her family avoid the border patrol and police on their way through northern Mexico.  Eventually, however, Willy realizes that the gang is closing in on him, putting Sayra and her family in danger.  But when he tries to give them the slip, Sayra manages to stick with him, and now he finds himself forced to look after her and outrun the gang and make it to relative safety in the United States.

"Sin Nombre" is a Mexican film, with not a single word of English spoken, so be prepared for subtitles.  I've never had a problem with subtitles.  Any film of sufficient caliber will make you forget entirely that you're reading all the characters' dialogue, and the only thing dubbing accomplishes is destroying the performance of the original actor.  The performances in "Sin Nombre" are first rate, so I wouldn't want to ruin them by over-dubbing the original voices with some over-eager, third-rate American voice actor - which is all a small, independent film like this would likely be able to afford.

The story is pretty fascinating, with a gritty, pull-no-punches representation of gang life.  "Sin Nombre" doesn't town down how vicious gang life is; early in the film, Smiley's first kill is chopped up and fed to the gang's dogs.  Other times, simply being in the wrong territory is enough to spark a running gunfight through the streets that the characters barely escape alive.  The film doesn't romanticize much of anything, and even the ending is a pretty rough punch to the gut, though it's not entirely dour. 

At just over 90 minutes, "Sin Nombre" is a fairly brisk film.  But in that slim 90 minutes, it manages to create believable, likable (or detestable) characters and illustrate their plight accurately.  The setup might seem familiar, but it's executed so well its hard to fault it for perhaps not being totally "original" - we've all seen stories about repentant gang members before, or the kind of "wrong side of the tracks" relationships between innocent girls and the aforementioned repentant gang members or rough around the edges dudes.  Hell, even those silly "Step Up" dance movies feature similar plotting.  But where watching Channing Tatum pull off wicked dance moves to impress some ballerina comes off as downright laughable, the relationship between Willy and Sayra is constructed with more care. 

"Sin Nombre" was nominated for a bunch of awards upon its release, and I think rightly so - perhaps it could have used even more.  A couple of those awards praised the film's cinematography and I have to agree.  "Sin Nombre" is a gorgeous, well-made film.  And it's well worth your time.