A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
El Norte. The North. It is a lodestar for some of those south of our border, who risk their lives to come here. "Sin Nombre," which means "without a name," is a devastating film about some of those who attempt the journey. It contains risk, violence, a little romance, even fleeting moments of humor, but most of all, it sees what danger and heartbreak are involved. It is riveting from start to finish.
The film weaves two stories. One involves Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a young woman from Honduras who joins her father and uncle in an odyssey through Guatemala and Mexico intended to take them to relatives in New Jersey. The other involves Willy, nicknamed Casper (Edgar Flores), a young gang member from southern Mexico, who joins with his leader and a 12-year-old gang recruit to rob those riding north on the tops of freight cars. Their paths cross. This is an extraordinary debut film by Cary Fukunaga, only 31, who shows a mastery of image and story. He knows the material. He spent time riding on the tops of northward trains; hundreds of hopeful immigrants materialize at a siding and scramble onboard, and the railroad apparently makes little attempt to stop them.
He is also convincing about the inner workings of the terrifying real-life gang named Mara Salvatrucha. Before turning to the story, I want to say something about the look and feel of the film. It was photographed by Adriano Goldman, who used, not hi-def video as you might suspect, but 35mm film, which has a special richness. Fukunaga's direction expresses a desire that seems growing in many young directors, to return to classical composition and editing. Those norms establish a strong foundation for storytelling; there's no queasy-cam for Fukunaga. Ramin Bahrani, director of "Goodbye Solo," is another member of the same generation whose shots call attention to their subject, not themselves.
The story of Sayra, her father and her uncle is straightforward: They are driven to improve their lives, think they have a safe haven in New Jersey and want to go there. Some elements of their journey reminded me of Gregory Nava's great indie epic "El Norte" (1983). The journey in that film was brutal; in this one, it is forged in hell.