Studio: Universal (Focus Features)
Film Length: 96 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: Spanish DD 5.1
Subtitles: English ("burned-in"); English SDH; French
Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 20, 2009
DVD Release Date: Sept. 1, 2009
Sin Nombre is the best 2009 release you haven’t seen. It’s also the most assured feature-film directing debut I can remember since The Sugarland Express (which was made by a guy named Spielberg). Winner of the 2009 awards at Sundance for both directing and cinematography, it’s a tense and unsparing thriller about two people with nothing in common except an urgent need to flee from desperate circumstances. When their paths cross – or, more accurately, collide – they end up cooperating, each for their own reasons, without ever knowing each other. Their only path lies across a treacherous landscape, where no one is reliable.
Willy (Edgar Cortes) is a member of the La Mara gang in Tapachula, a city at the southern tip of Mexico. His gang name is “El Casper”. His job is to collect pay-offs from merchants in and around “La Bombilla”, the local train depot. Willy also has an apprentice, a young kid who earns the name “Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer), after a brutal initiation overseen by Lil’ Mago, the gang’s leader, and his second-in-command, El Sol. As we follow Willy and Smiley on their rounds and into the gang headquarters, we are given a thorough introduction to the gang’s code and culture, and we watch the execution of a rival gang member, who is then fed to dogs.
We also discover another side to Willy, when he goes to visit his secret girlfriend, Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia). More middle-class than Willy, she knows little of his gang affiliation, only that he spends too much time away from her, and she’s jealous.
Intercut with Willy’s story is that of teenage Sayra (Paulina Gaitan, who played the kidnapped girl in the Kevin Kline film Trade). Raised in Honduras by her grandmother, she suddenly finds her long-missing father on their doorstep offering to take her to America to live with his new wife and children. Her uncle, her father’s youngest brother, will accompany them, and he tells Sayra there’s no future for her in Honduras. Reluctantly, Sayra joins them on a difficult trek across jungle and river into Mexico. The two men and the young girl cannot, of course, enter the United States legally. Their plan is to join the crowd of hopefuls clinging to the roofs of freight trains traveling from the southernmost tip of Mexico to the Texas border. Their point of departure: La Bombilla.
The scenes of immigrants waiting for a train have some of the anticipation and hope that Francis Coppola captured in the Ellis Island section of The Godfather, Part II. But they also have a sense of menace, especially when the huge train barrels into the station. When the train finally leaves with passengers, including Sayra and her family, packed on top, it picks up some additional freight: Willy, Smiley and Lil’ Mago, who have come to rob the travelers of whatever money or valuables they’ve managed to retain.
There are already tensions between Willy and Lil’ Mago because of Willy’s activities outside the gang, and the robbery does not go as planned. When the smoke clears, Willy is alone. His gang wants him dead for betrayal and has mobilized all their allies throughout Mexico to hunt him down, while Smiley has promised to kill his former mentor in an effort to prove his own loyalty. Meanwhile, the travelers on the train want to throw Willy over the side. Only Sayra’s intervention stops them. She has her reasons, some obvious, some not.
The remainder of the film is a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between Sayra and Willy and the various parties pursuing them, both criminal and official (the Mexican authorities being just as hostile to illegal immigrants from Honduras as their American counterparts). By train, by car, by truck, by water and on foot, the two teenagers keep trying to stay one step ahead. To find out whether they succeed, you’ll have to see the film.
As both writer and director, Cary Fukunaga’s mastery of storytelling never wavers for an instant. He establishes the tension in the opening scenes and never lets you relax, even though his two main characters don’t meet up until almost midway through the film. Fukunaga sends his camera roaming through the La Mara headquarters, showing us in every detail both the seductiveness of gang life and the delicate balance of fear and reward that makes it so volatile. He gives the train journey a proper sense of scale, with long shots of the cars traveling across the countryside and of the countryside seen from the cars, while maintaining the sense of cramped privation that the exhausted travelers must endure as they huddle together through rain and cold mountain passages. He shoots scenes of extreme violence simply and swiftly, so that they retain the power to shock, but he lingers over scenes that are more brutal than violent where the point is to instill fear rather than inflict damage. (Smiley’s gang initiation scene is excruciating.) The film’s dramatic climax, a complicated sequence on a river bank involving multiple actions happening simultaneously, is both an accomplished action set piece and the most emotional moment in the film. Any director would envy it. (The razor-sharp editing is by Luis Carballar, who worked on Amores Peros, and Craig McKay, whose extensive credits include The Silence of the Lambs.)
Even the best filmmaking requires convincing performances, and Fukunaga drew spectacular performances from his two leads. Paulina Gaitan had extensive experience in Mexican television, but she does not give an “actorly” performance as Sayra. Her reactions to the ever-increasing challenges facing Sayra are raw and utterly convincing. Edgar Cortes had never acted before Sin Nombre, and (as Fukunaga relates in the commentary) had never experienced in real life some of the emotions he had to convey as Willy. But Fukunaga managed to use this inexperience to bypass many of the affectations that often afflict young male actors and to draw out a performance in which Cortes doesn’t “act” Willy, but simply is Willy. In the opening scene, he stares into the camera to the sound of Marcelo Zarvos’ haunting score. Then he gets up to start his collections, and you’re already tense.
The 2:35:1 16:9-enhanced transfer is one of the best DVD images I have seen in a long time. Detail is exceptional for NTSC video, and there is little or no aliasing, video noise or artifacting. The transfer handles both shadow detail and the widely varying color palette effectively. Sin Nombre utilizes numerous locations, has both night and day scenes, and employs a restless (but not shaky) camera style that is always looking around. No doubt Blu-ray would provide an improved image, but having seen the film theatrically, I was impressed at how well this DVD recreated the visual experience.
The Spanish DD 5.1 track is extremely impressive for a low-budget film. Surround effects are plentiful, especially on the train. There is also a wild gun battle in the streets that may have you looking over your shoulder. The LFE from both music and effects is powerful enough to rival some action films. This is an immersive and involving soundtrack.
NOTE: The English subtitles do not appear to be player-generated. They display even when subtitles are set to “off”, and the font is unlike any I have seen generated by a DVD player. This seems to be one of the rare cases of burned-in subtitles being included on the DVD image.
Commentary with writer/director Cary Fukunaga and producer Amy Kaufman. Given the exotic (to most Americans) locales in which the film takes place, it’s somewhat disconcerting to hear Fukunaga’s laid-back California intonations on the commentary track. (He was born in Oakland, California.) He does most of the talking and, as directors tend to do, concentrates on the shooting process, about which he provides great detail. Certain items are especially striking, such as the fact that the elaborate gang tattoos applied to numerous cast members had to be washed off at the end of each shooting day, and then reapplied the next morning, because they were authentic, and it would be unsafe for anyone to wear them off-set, lest rival gangs take offense (with potentially lethal consequences).
Kaufman chimes in with additional insights about the shoot, but what is unfortunately missing is insight from Fukunaga the writer on how he went about researching and creating the script, and what drew him to the subject in the first place. Maybe in a future edition (which this fine film certainly deserves).
Deleted scenes (10:04). Presented in non-enhanced video, these are mostly brief trims presented without commentary or other explanation. Most are just additional “beats” that would have slowed the pace, but one or two suggest further or alternative script elements that were apparently abandoned.
The subtitling is odd and slapdash. Some of the trims have what appear to be “burned-in” subtitles appearing below the 2:35:1 image. Others have no subtitles, and unless you speak Spanish, you will need to turn on the English SDH track. It’s as if the inclusion of this extra was a last-minute decision, and there wasn’t enough time to prepare it properly.
Trailers. The disc’s menu is preceded by trailers for 9, a general trailer for Focus Features, a promotion for Universal Blu-ray, and a trailer for the direct-to-DVD Bring It On: Fight to the Finish (save yourselves!). These can be skipped with the menu button.