Earlier this year, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature Sin Nombre collected awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also developed in the Sundance lab. Both these facts help explain what’s exciting and disappointing about it. Taken out of context—or heck, even within context—Sin Nombre’s gorgeous widescreen panoramas of tired, poor, and huddled masses heading north by train through Central America and Mexico to the Texas border are stirring in the same way as those shiploads of immigrants approaching Ellis Island in America, America or The Godfather, Part II. In a film loaded with memorable images, there are none more potent than families clinging to the tops of railroad cars, dodging errant tree branches, vicious bandits, roving patrol officers, and extreme weather on the off-chance they’ll make it to the other side. Even Lou Dobbs would be moved.
Then there’s the matter of the script, which is sadly endemic of the earnest, conventional, issue-oriented mediocrities produced and rewarded by Sundance nearly every year. No cliché goes unturned: There’s a gang member seeking redemption, an innocent corrupted by a culture of violence, a girl reuniting with her estranged father and coming of age on the road. At the film’s center is the relationship between a Honduran teenager (Paulina Gaitan) on a long journey to connect with family members in New Jersey, and a gang member (Edgar Flores) forced to flee after killing a leader of the powerful Mara Salvatrucha syndicate. He knows the Mara’s tentacles are too far-reaching for him to survive; she clings to him anyway.
The early scenes in Sin Nombre, before the two leads have crossed paths, at least have some mystery, but once they meet up on the rails, their characters are defined more by their circumstances than their particulars, and their destinies are precooked. Fukunaga paints better outside the lines, working with cinematographer Adriano Goldman to offer vivid shots of the poverty and despair cutting through Latin America, of gang rituals and territorial skirmishes, and of ordinary people taking dangerous routes to a better life that may be a mirage. Next time, a few rewrites please.