Unlike Babel, Traffic and any number of other recent films dealing with hot button topics of global import, Sin Nombre (issue: immigration - and gangs) doesn’t aim to assault the viewer with its alleged insights. In fact, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s feature debut doesn’t attempt to offer - and thus doesn’t offer - much in the way of insight at all. Presenting the linked stories of a Mexican gang-banger fleeing his former crew and a young Honduran woman trying to immigrate to the United States with her uncle and father, the film unfolds as something like pure narrative. But rather than communicate some sense of what it might mean to embark on a dangerous journey toward an unknown country – except to suggest that, y’know, it’s kinda rough - Fukunaga trusts in the power of continual forward momentum to carry the project, resorting to cheap manipulation for cheap effect and introducing rough bursts of gang violence when things start to drag.
So, yeah, it’s entertaining, but that entertainment is predicated on the old paradox: What’s exciting is presented only as a thing to be condemned. Or is only allowed to be exciting so long as it is condemned. As Fukunaga tells it, gang life falls into two modes: the thrilling and the pointedly unpleasant and, while there’s far more of the former on display, the writer/director draws on the latter whenever he needs to achieve a (generally dubious) dramatic potency. In the film’s first moment of crisis, a gang leader tries to rape the girlfriend of his young underling Casper (Edgar Flores), then accidentally kills her when she resists, setting in motion the bereft man’s flight and initiating the chase narrative that constitutes the film’s second half. Fukunaga certainly knows how to hit where it hurts, but he doesn't always play fair: The heightened emotions that he successfully channels result from his considerable skill at appealing to the viewer’s basic revulsions, not from any audience interest he’s created in his mostly neglible characters. The director pulls the same stunt twice more – at the film’s second point of crisis and at the climax – calling on timely intervention, contrived synchronicity and the threat - or promise - of violence to juice up the proceedings, but what these hysterical outbursts principally achieve is to point up the flimsiness of the surrounding material.
Give or take a few attempted rapes, though, and the gangster life looks rather like good breezy fun – at least for the viewer. For the rest, the film turns its attention to teenaged Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), our Honduran would-be immigrant whose narrative unfolds mostly atop a train as she and her family join a group of Central American émigrés crossing the Mexican countryside en route to the promised land. Fukunaga has even less to say about the plight of the immigrant than about the plight of the gangster, but these scenes at least seem authentically detailed (the tarp the group brings to ward off rain storms is a nice touch) and they give the director and his talented cinematographer Adriano Goldman plenty of time to take in the landscape – impossibly lush fields and pleasingly shabby slums, ranging from bright greens to dull grays – as the train zips by.
Signaling the confluence of the two narrative strands, on-the-lam Casper joins up with Sayra and her party, protecting the group from his old gang who (a little too conveniently) show up to shake down the hapless immigrants. And while the rest of the party still resents his presence (the only good marero is a dead marero), it’s not long before a little romance springs up between the young woman and the ex-gangster. To his credit, Fukunaga doesn’t make too much of this bit of puppy love, but the whole thing seems more a questionable device aimed at filling in the spaces of the less compelling of the filmmaker's two plotlines than any kind of productive development. So it comes as something of a relief when Casper’s gang returns to the scene and Fukunaga gives us a thrilling bit of shoot-out as they engage a rival clan. The fact that the film makes us long for our heroes’ situations to conform to generic expectations – gang warfare is after all more interesting than quiet train rides – may serve to cheapen the immigrants’ plight, but in the place of any greater insight on offer, it’s about all we've got to work with. As we wait for the inevitable moment of reckoning with the villains, there’s little left to do but reflect that what we’re dealing with here is not really a film that has anything to say about its ostensible subjects, but one that uses them as the basis for crafting a rather conventional – though occasionally rousing – genre piece: in Fukunaga’s film, immigration becomes at last the (im)proper stuff of the thriller.