Prior to becoming a household name for his brilliant work on the first season of True Detective, director Cary Joji Fukunaga burst onto the scene with his intimate portrait of an unlikely friendship. Sin Nombre explores the adversities that many Mexican immigrants endure as they risk it all for a chance at a better life in America. The individuals at the core of Fukunaga’s film are a young gang member named Willy “El Casper” (Edgar Flores), and Sayra (Paulina Gaitán), a young woman from Honduras traveling with her father and uncle in hopes of sneaking into America.
The pair’s lives fatefully cross paths when Willy’s gang, lead by Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), attempts to rob a group undocumented stowaways, which Sayra and her family are among, on a train. Through a series of events that culminates with Willy saving Sayra from being raped, and killing Lil’ Mago in the process, the two youngsters find themselves on their own attempting to evade authorities and Willy’s former gang members.
Sin Nombre walks a fine line between poignant social commentary and clichéd cinematic tropes. Though there are several time where it veers too far into the latter, Fukunaga’s story offers enough riveting moments to shield the audience from the film’s foibles. Sin Nombre is at is strongest when Fukunaga juxtaposes the bleak hardships of gang life with the plight of fleeing Latin American immigrants. In both cases the theme of redemption is everywhere in the film. Willy is the quintessential misguided soul in need of atonement. Whether he is taking his lumps from his fellow gang members, or from individuals at the hostel for wearing his gang’s trademark teardrop, Willy is constantly reminded of the poor choices he has made in life.
The point is emphasized further when Sayra remarks that a fortune teller advised her that she would be delivered to America “not in God’s hand, but in the hands of the devil”. Fukanaga uses Willy and Sayra’s journey to shine light on the dark realities of immigrants trying to flee Central America. The immigrants are subjected to stowing away on tops of trains, forced to keep a constant watch for both border patrol and local gangs, endure abuse from rock throwing villagers who consider them traitors for leaving their homeland, and have limited access to food and water. Despite all of the despair, the character of Sayra is used as the beacon of hope and resilience. Though the odds of survival are slim, and even if they make it to the United States an illegal immigrant will never truly be safe, there are times when the danger is worth the risk.
While the clichés keep Sin Nombre from truly reaching the heights it should, there is more than enough here to deserve a look.
Sin Nombre is currently streaming on Netflix Canada.