Southern Mexico is a sorry lot; it has long been the location of civil unrest, violence and more depressingly, a place in which faith in any form of legitimate authority has vanished. The same can be said of much of Central America and this is the world Sin Nombre inhabits and director Cary Fukunaga triumphs in making an unsentimental yet touching film.
His triumph does not come without difficulty; what could have easily been a melodramatic tale is turned into an unromantic view of disillusioned MS-13 member Willy aka El Casper (Edgar Flores). He has recruited one more member, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), who is just added cannon fodder for a gang who recruits members with as much efficiency as an armed forces recruiter. It is telling that there is simply no other real authority in the town. The police? They are just as bad, and the gang does not put up any pretense. Sin Nombre shows the gang not as a run of the mill gang, but an honest authority on to itself which lends even more weight to its rituals and meetings. MS-13 initiates Smiley in a beating reminiscent of a baptism and there is a great scene in which the creepily tattooed Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) kisses him, completing his transformation from a boy into a heartless killer.
Meanwhile, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) begins her fateful journey to the north with her estranged dad and the film once again shows poverty but never overdoing it. Sayra’s future is intertwined with Willy at one point and the two stand alone together; both are fish out of water who long ago decided to resist social norms. In Sayra’s case, she is naïve, sassy, independent and determined, sometimes all at once. She is the only woman on the train leading to the border and braves both her dad’s low opinion on her new friend as well as the constant dangers that surround them.
In these roles, Flores and Gaitan are great at showing both resolve and vulnerability. Flores is wonderful at showing a man beaten by life’s struggles and shows a certain nihilism as well. What would it matter that he made it out of Mexico, he would then still have to confront the fact that he made very bad choices in life. This view is summed up in an exchange with Sayra. “I’ve fucked up my life; and now I’m worried I fucked up yours” he says. Gaitan is also great at showing a sense of defiance even when she is without her father and threatened by the gang.
Aside from the strong performances, Fukunaga skillfully shows just how warped society can be when denied any opportunity to function in a normal manner and the hypocrisy of Mexicans towards other migrants. While this is primarily a chase/travel film, immigration is the glue that holds all these tangents in place and the film is sobering in its showing of migrants being robbed and harassed by Mexican gangs, police and even children. (Though there is a scene in which Mexican citizens throw food to migrants on the train, yet this is not the norm.) For all the country’s complaints toward America for its perceived social injustices, Mexicans are guilty of the same evils as well and even worse, they claim victim hood while preying on even weaker beings in their own country.
In effect, the world of Sin Nombre is a Hobbesian world in which everyone is either a victim or a villain and there are no real happy endings. Even if Sayra and Smiley make it to the U.S, their victory will be bittersweet as they will surely be confronted with the risks of deportation and being marginalized by society at large. The only conciliation to the viewer is that despite that, Sin Nombre shows the lengths that human beings will go to have a better life. Fukunaga must be given credit for transforming a simple wish into a film that refuses to give into audience expectation and most importantly, show what it is like to be on the margins in an unforgiving world.