Two young immigrants from different sides of the tracks cross paths on the road to redemption in writer/director Cary Fukunaga’s sparkling but sometimes brutal debut film, “Sin Nombre.”
The title, which translates as “nameless” or without a name,” tells the story of a disillusioned gang member, Casper/Willy (Edgar Flores) who has just brought a new member, 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), to the violent and notorious street gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS). Soon he and the other members of the gang initiate young Smiley into the crew with violent brotherhood beat-down.
In the backdrop of gang mayhem, young Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), and her recently reunited father and brother are planning to leave their native Honduras for a better life in America. Armed with little money and map, the group treks through their native land constantly repeating the phone number of a relative in the states that will give them asylum.
The two are on a collision course that kicks into overdrive when Casper lies to the leader of gang, the physically imposing Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta). With an MS tatoo covering his entire face, he is simultaneously seductively charming with a sadistic mean streak. Their turf war with the Chavalas, rivals the hatred of the Crips and the Bloods. In a disturbing turn, Mago even orders the death of a rival and promises to chop up his bones and feed them to his dogs. Let’s just say that he is a man of his word!
When immigrants are attacked and robbed on a train and with Sayra on the verge of being physically assaulted, Casper steps in and commits a tragic act which marks him for death. Already hurt after an unfortunate act took the life of the woman he loved, Casper’s actions change his life forever. Mago’s second in command, El Sol (Luis Fernando Peña), puts a bounty out on someone from the MS to take Casper out.
But in all of the confusion, Casper finds an unlikely ally in the doe-eyed Sayra. Offering kindness and tenderness, she comforts and consoles the hardened “G.” In one of the film’s most honest moments, she shares a chilling prophesy with Casper. “I was told that I’d make it to America but not by God’s hands, but the devils.”
The clock is ticking for these two star-crossed lovers as they try to get to America by avoiding not only border patrol but the vengence seeking members of the violent MS.
Shot in a very transparent and gritty style, Fukunaga’s film invokes images of gang life in films such as “City of God,” “Mean Street,” “Menace to Society” and “Boyz ‘N the Hood.” His screenplay is stripped down and simply executed but it is the lack of pretense and brutal gut-wrenching honesty that makes the story feel so winningly effective, and even in the depths of despair, full of hope.
His cast of young actors are simply amazing anchored by strong lead performances from both Flores and Gaytan. But it is the intense performance of Huerta as the sadistic gang leader whose work here leaves the strongest impression.
Rapper/actor Ice Cube once remarked on wax that “every hood is the same, every hood’s the same.” While that may be true, award-winning director Fukunaga has announced his presence with authority by opening our eyes not only to horrors of immigrants searching for the American dream but exposing the evils of the lives they leave behind. Their faces may be “nameless,” but “Sin Nombre” is an impressive opening salvo in the career of an exciting new voice in cinema.