In a way, “Sin Nombre” is the anti-Slumdog Millionaire I’ve been waiting for. Both films share an arresting and unique sight: people riding on top of a railroad car. But while “Slumdog” made it look like a roller coaster ride — in the process of making life as an orphan in a third world country look pretty darn fun and exciting — “Nombre” captures a different feel altogether – that of weary travellers, hungry, beaten by the rain, clinging desperately to the hope of a better life in a different place.
Edgar Flores plays Casper, a member of the deadly and powerful gang Mara Salvatrucha. But a series of events force him to run from the gang, while simultaneously linking him to Paulina Gaitan, a Honduran who is trying to join the rest of her family in New Jersey. They travel north through Mexico on top of a freight train. Flores knows that the gang is after him, and likely waiting for him at every possible stop. Gaitan is remarkably, even uncannily, faithful to him. It’s a long train ride.
Perhaps the most tragic figure in “Sin Nombre” is a young boy named, or nicknamed, Smiley. He can hardly be 12 years old. He is Casper’s best friend, and is the one sent by M. Salvatrucha to find him and kill him. There is one particularly chilling scene in which Smiley shows his friends – boys 8 or 9 years old — the gun he has been given to kill his old friend with. The boys look on in awe and admiration, and when Smiley flashes they gang sign, they try to make their little fingers into the right formation.
This is American director Cary Fukunaga’s debut film, and what a debut it is. Fukunaga actually rode the train in the story for months, to effectively capture the feel of the travellers and the journey. And he curried favor with real members of Mara Salvatrucha, who became bit players in some of the gang sequences. He shot in 35mm, giving the film, a rich, scenic, emotional look and feel. “Sin Nombre” is chilling and tragic, beautiful and sad, deep and deeply emotional, but never sentimental. It’s an impressive debut, and Fukunaga looks like someone we should be hearing from–and paying attention to– for many years to come.