Death in film, even violent death, rarely comes as a great surprise.
It is ordained, prefigured, meticulously set in motion. It takes place
in settings where its presence seems natural--a battlefield, a house
with a serial killer in it--or as the result of a confrontation between
established antagonists. The music rises, the tension builds, and
whammo: The century-long celluloid slaughter claims another victim.
This is not the case, however, in Cary Joji Fukunaga's exceptional feature-film debut, Sin Nombre, which serves as a chronicle of deaths unforetold. Fukunaga's body count is not high, and it is not unsympathetic. But it is, with few exceptions, startling--and not for the usual reason of a wallowing camera. Quite the opposite: A character is alive one moment and then, by intent or accident, is gone, almost before you have time to realize what happened.
This is not to say that Sin Nombre (which is Spanish for "nameless") is a particularly violent film, at least by contemporary standards. Yes, there is violence in it, but violence is not the point of it. Fukunaga's handling of these mortal episodes is merely the most dramatic example of the way his film keeps viewers off-balance. Though it is constructed from entirely recognizable, even conventional parts, Sin Nombre repeatedly subverts expectation. After opening with intimations that it will be an "issue" movie about the plight of Latino immigrants seeking to cross illegally into the United States, it quickly evolves into a hybrid of more popular genres: a gangster movie, a road movie, a low-key romance. But each time the film seems settled into a familiar arc, it instead unspools in an unexpected direction. Characters who seemed integral become peripheral (and vice versa), or depart the film altogether. Moreover, each swerve is organic; Fukunaga's gift lies not in inventing clever reversals, but in declining to provide us with the typical cinematic cues that advertise what's coming.
For this reason, I'll be spare with plot details. (I would also recommend avoiding the not-nearly-so-reticent trailer.) A Honduran girl (Paulina Gaitan), her uncle (Guillermo Villegas), and her estranged father (Gerardo Taracena) attempt the treacherous journey across Mexico to enter the United States illegally. A young Chiapas foot-soldier in the street gang Mara Salvatrucha (Edgar Flores), juggling a murderous boss (Tenoch Huerta) and a pre-adolescent recruit (Kristian Ferrer), tries also to carve out a secret space for his bourgeois girlfriend (Diana Garcia). These two worlds intersect on a train--literally "on," not "in": these are freight-line roof-riders--that traverses Mexico on its precarious journey to the U.S. border. The tale that subsequently unfolds balances murder and mercy, retaliation and redemption.
Along the way, Fukunaga fills the frame with memorable images: the savage rituals of the Mara gang, whose demonic tattoos would inspire envy in the primeval warriors of Apocalypto; the barrages of generous fruit and bitter stones with which locals greet the rail-riding refugees who pass through their towns; the moments of quiet compassion between strangers tossed together. It's rare for a film to marry documentary authenticity with cinematic beauty, but Sin Nombre manages the feat thanks to Adriano Goldman, whose work earned him the Cinematography Award at Sundance. (Fukunaga walked away with the directing prize.)
Like Fukunaga--the Oakland-born, Brooklyn-dwelling son of a Swedish-American mother and Japanese-American father--Sin Nombre has a transnational flavor. The film is in (well-subtitled) Spanish, right down to the credits; the uniformly persuasive cast includes both professional and amateur actors; and Mexican stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna are among the executive producers.