Review: Cary Fukunaga’s heartbreaking “Sin Nombre”

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On Monday, I linked to some interesting articles on True Detective. Today, a look back at the 2009 feature from the director of all eight of the show’s episodes, Cary Fukunaga: Sin Nombre. I gave the film 3 ½ stars for the Buffalo News in August 2009.

Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” arrives mere months after “Slumdog Millionaire” won over the world with its magic realism, its sense of optimism and its concept of the possibility of triumph over poverty through hard work and perseverance.

“Slumdog” is a wonderful film. But “Sin Nombre,” while not quite as flashily memorable, is a more impactful, heartbreaking saga about what’s really at stake in the slums of the world.

The third film from this previously unknown director, “Sin” is the story of the intersection of two lives: that of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teenager who accompanies her long-absent father and uncle on a quest to America, and Willy, aka Casper, a gang-banger with a teardrop-tattoo, played by an appropriately rage-filled young actor named Edgar Flores.

Sayra, the more relatable and likable character of the two, hopes to join her recently deported (from the States) father in New Jersey, where he has a new life and family. Willy, meanwhile, spends his time with his girlfriend, mentoring a young hopeful dubbed Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) and hanging with his gang “homies” — yes, homie is the seemingly appropriate term, according to the film.

The gang hangout is a nightmare of guns and flesh, as members simultaneously fondle firearms, talk trash and ponder their enemies. The king of this lair is Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a face-tattooed, soft-spoken monster who cradles his infant while ordering murders. Mago is the film’s most memorable creation, all the more for being such a bundle of contradictions.

Soon, Willy and Mago clash, and Willy’s life changes in a split-second. It’s no surprise that he and Sayra soon come into contact, but the way they do is sudden, violent and, as handled by Fukunaga, cinematically brilliant.

Fukunaga, also the screenwriter, also understands the power of succinct dialogue. “Sin Nombre” is anything but a wordy film, yet simple sentences tell us a great deal.

Take a lovely scene in which Sayra and her father rest in a stopped train car. Her feet are wounded from the day’s walk. He pulls out a map to show her how far they’ve traveled thus far, and how long it will take them to get to the border — about two weeks. Her face betrays her disappointment, and she asks where New Jersey is. “New Jersey is not on the map,” he replies.

Another line is chilling in its implication. One of the gang members tells the others, “We’ll have to call the leaders in L.A.” In other words, this is not a Mexican problem — it’s an American problem, too, and it’s demonstrated here in a way stronger and less overblown than in recent works like “Babel” and “Fast Food Nation.”

Perhaps that’s why North American audiences have taken to the film. “Sin Nombre” was honored at the Sundance Film Festival for its direction and cinematography, and it’s easy to see why.

Yet the film is not without flaws, chiefly: predictable scripting and occasional bouts of directorial obviousness. The ending, especially, can be guessed from about the two-minute mark. But it’s a testament to the cast and filmmaker that this does not detract from its impact.

“Sin Nombre” is pretty close to a great film, a searing, violent story that heralds the arrival of a dynamic young filmmaker. It will be fascinating to see what Fukunaga does next.

One note on the rating. “Sin Nombre” is rated R, and this is sensible, I suppose, for a film that features cold-blooded murders aplenty, the implied feeding of a human to dogs, children with guns, some fleeting nudity and attempted rape. Yet, I think young Americans are probably the film’s ideal audience. Here, unvarnished and without mercy, is a window into a world — on this continent — where poverty and death seem to ooze from the streets. I think teenagers will find the film riveting, relatable and downright eye-opening.