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.