Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Cary Fukunaga's feature debut Sin Nombre is one of those films that dazzle you with its craft while you're watching it but then makes you wonder whether you've been cheated just a little bit, a few minutes after the Sundance-mandated high has dissipated somewhat.
Don't get me wrong - this is, undoubtedly, a very good movie that is worth the rental or theater ticket. Fukunaga has talent with a camera, creating some beautiful imagery even as he depicts some very ugly events, characters and environments. The film is about the crossing of two paths - that of gang member Willy as he falls out with his cohort, thus attempting escape and that of teenager Sayra and her family as they make that cinematic journey of journeys towards the United States border. The most striking aspect of the proceedings is the authenticity and immediacy with which Fukunaga delves into the story, making the first half of the movie the more compelling one.
He did his research - riding with immigrants on the train to the border and vetting plot points with actual members of the La Mara Salvatrucha (Willy's gang). The result is verisimilitude to the nth degree - tattoos, initiations, ten year old gangsters and heartbreak aplenty. The early sequences, establishing the violent world that Willy lives in, are mesmerizing. I was drawn in further by the setup afforded to the Honduran family setting out via freight train roof for the border and, eventually, New Jersey. The performances go a long way here. Edgar Flores is the right balance of vulnerable and intense as Willy and the mostly unspoken bonds between Sayra and her family as they have each other's back during the trip is conveyed in various simple but effective ways.
A shame then that this promising mix is let down a little by the cardboard characterizations for nearly all involved. The 'young gangster who finds conscience through the love of a girl' trope got tiresome a long time ago and, as good as the execution is, Willy's character arc is trite. Not to mention a little sketchily thought out. It's difficult to buy redemption from a character who executes a begging, unarmed man in the opening scene. There are many other overly familiar plot points and character types recycled from countless gangster dramas (when Willy's kid protege shows up in the beginning, how long do you think it'll be before they're on opposite sides in a Test Of Loyalty?). The female characters get criminally short shrift; their actions moronic to a fault.
It is, however, unlikely that all this will bother you too much as you watch the movie. There is a distinct uptick in suspense levels when Willy breaks (violently) from his gang and they decide to track him down as he rides the freight train north along with the immigrant family, crossing the redemption/immigrants story with the road thriller sub-genre. Above all, the environment and circumstances that the characters find themselves in are fascinating to the end. Many films have been made about immigrants trying to sneak across the US/Mexico border but I have never seen one that deals with the hardship they have to deal with on the way to said border. Some people may cry 'poverty porn' but their journey through various towns and out-of-the-way stations never feels less than authentic and remains on the right side of the exploitation line. Similarly, I have seen few genuine attempts at depicting Mexican gang culture (IN Mexico, that is, and not Los Angeles) and even fewer that do so outside of Mexico City. All this makes the movie enough of an evocative exercise in world-building (completely alien to viewers outside of Mexico and probably even many Mexicans)as to make you forget about the lame characters and the rather cliche third act.
In the end, the film falls short of greatness as the initially successful combination of naturalistic Sundance fare and gritty thriller wanders into by-the-numbers territory. This, in turn, draws attention to the two-dimensional characterizations and predictable ending. But you should watch it anyway. The craft, the performances and the realism of the first half will propel you through the 95 minute runtime and by the time the credits roll, you'd be ready to put this on your 'top 10 of 2009' list just as I was. It's only later that you think a little harder and realize that maybe it wasn't as good as all that. But no amount of thinking can detract from the fact that those 95 minutes were well spent.
My IMDB rating of the movie - 7/10