A freight train, laden with would-be immigrants to the United States, lumbers resolutely north through Mexico, a tableau of impoverished rural towns stretching out to either side. We know that these are images of human struggle in the face of oppressive conditions, but we can’t help but notice how beautiful the landscape is, how striking and saturated the colors are. As the train passes through one town, villagers run alongside, tossing technicolor fruit and words of encouragement up to the hundreds piled aboard; in the next, the travelers are met by a barrage of stones and obscenities.
If only the rest of “Sin Nombre” (“without a name”) had been as comfortable with ambiguity. Instead, director Cary Joji Fukunaga tends toward predictability and sensationalism in the treatment of the film’s two main storylines, which intersect aboard a train bound for the U.S.-Mexico border. On the one hand we have el Casper (Edgar Flores), a teenage member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. We sympathize with Casper because we are supposed to: instead of attending to his gang-related duties, he sneaks off to visit his girlfriend, whom he openly adores and who is with him always as a video file in a little digital camera he carries in his pocket. Instead of participating in the ritualistic violence around him (feeding a member of a rival gang to the dogs, for example), he stands to the side with a look of disgust on his face.
Forced on a robbery outing to prove his loyalty after his delinquent delinquency raises one too many eyebrows, Casper boards a train bound for the border with el Smiley, his 12 year-old recruit, and Lil’ Mago, the gang’s second in command. This is where the two storylines collide: Sayra (played by Paulina Gaitan), a teenage girl from Honduras traveling north with her uncle and estranged father, is assaulted by Lil’ Mago. Casper intervenes, and ends up with a price on his head. If he boarded the train as a predator, he remains aboard as prey, hoping to make it out of the country before the rest of the gang catches up to him.
What comes next is straight out of a Hollywood recipe book. Sayra, against her father’s will, befriends the frightened and alienated Casper. Caspar refuses her, not wanting to get her involved in the confrontation he knows is coming, but softens when he sees her determination. Add a pinch of redemption: the girl’s faith in the boy restores some part of his humanity he thought he had lost forever. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, young Smiley is preparing to head the expedition to hunt down his former mentor. I can’t help but feel that I’ve seen this movie before.
Manohla Dargis may have said it best in her review for The New York Times:
Mr. Fukunaga may have traveled through Mexico to research the film, but he hasn’t strayed far from Hollywood to tell his tale. […] However street, Casper is as sentimentalized a fiction as one of those dirty-faced angels who ran around studio back lots in the 1930s.
Which brings me back to the digital camera. While it is not particularly difficult to imagine how Caspar came by this little device, the fact that its provenance and Casper’s criminal activities are essentially absent from the film limits its power. Instead of the nuanced social commentary it could have been, the film becomes a mainstream tragic romance peppered with extraordinary violence, in which the socio-political reality it depicts acts more as a backdrop than a structuring element.
None of this is to say that it’s not an enjoyable film to watch. The cinematography is exquisite, and the acting is remarkable – particularly given the youth of the three leads. And, to be fair, it doesn’t really sell itself as anything other than the drama that it is. All the same, there seems to be something out of joint about the way the story is told, something that leaves me feeling a bit like the schoolboys who fawn over Smiley’s pistol in the playground in a perverse rehearsal of show-and-tell: we know there is unspeakable violence at the heart of it, but we keep our eyes trained on the glint of the sun off the barrel.