Universal // 2009 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // September 10th, 2009
A perilous race for the border.
A lot of movies have been made about the American side of the drug trade. We have an obsession with gangs, the ones that distribute South American drugs to the cities of America. What we don't see often are the Mexican and South American equivalents of these gangs -- ones that operate without the American legal system breathing down their necks. Sin Nombre is about these gangs, and it's a powerful, eye-opening experience.
El Caspar (Edgar M. Flores) is a member of one such South American gang, but he is quickly growing tired of the life. He has just helped initiate the gang's newest member, and his girlfriend has been murdered by the leader. When he turns on his friends, he ends up with a group of illegal immigrants on a train heading North towards America. One of these is Sayra (Paulina Gaiton, Trade), a teenage girl who takes an immediate liking to El Caspar. He knows he is going to be caught and killed by the gang, and he doesn't want her caught in the crossfire.
Sin Nombre begins with a scene of a gang initiation. It is as tough and brutal as anything you will see in American gang films, and it just gets rougher from there. This is a tough, disturbing film that pulls no punches in depicting Mexican gang life. It's even worse to consider how young the gang members are, making these gangs roughly equivalent to the recruitment of child soldiers in Africa. It's not this depiction that makes Sin Nombre so great, though. Instead, it's the tender relationship between El Caspar and Sayra. Their friendship is tender, but doesn't conform to Hollywood convention. We know early on that it's not a friendship that will end happily, which makes it all the more poignant.
It also makes the film rife with suspense. Like all great tragedy, the road that these characters are travelling down is governed by fate, not by choice. On the train that carries the immigrants north, there are only two possibilities: success or deportation. El Caspar is pretty sure that his road cannot lead to success. The pacing of Sin Nombre is assured, never letting us become complacent or forget the road the film is on. Like the train, the plot barrels on without regard to the passengers.
This is also an astonishingly polished film. Most films like Sin Nombre lack the budget of American studio productions and get their charm from somewhere else. Thanks to funding by Focus, however, Sin Nombre features vibrant cinematography as well as a great blend of steadycam, handheld and crane work. The camera never really stops moving, but it's not the ADHD inspired chaos seen in so many recent Hollywood productions. The music is fitting and classy, adding to the emotion and suspense of the film without drawing attention to itself. The performances are also pitch-perfect, especially from such a young cast. Movies like Sin Nombre don't come out that often from anywhere in the world, and they shouldn't be missed. Indeed, the only film I can really compare Sin Nombre to is City of God, which is high praise, in my book.
The DVD is reasonably well-appointed, featuring a really solid video transfer that shows off the lighting and cinematography of the film. The subtitles are burned in to the image, but they are not hard to read. There is sometimes a bit of compression, but it's close to reference quality for standard definition. Since it doesn't seem to be coming out on Blu-Ray, this is the best version we'll get for a while. The sound is also strong, featuring a confident but subdued mix of elements. There are some special features as well, including some deleted scenes as well as a commentary with writer/director Cary Fukunaga and Amy Kaufman. He put an impressive level of research into the creation of the film, which makes it even more chilling and powerful.
I hate to backtrack at all after so much praise, but I should qualify my comparison between City of God and Sin Nombre. The former is a transcendent film, one that bursts out from the city itself. Sin Nombre is a great film, too, but it's a film about the South American gangs, not a film that is fully steeped in that world. It prevents the film from being a genuine masterpiece, but it doesn't prevent it from being the best thriller in a very long time.
Sin Nombre is a great thriller, one that shouldn't be missed. It is a thought-provoking and galvanizing experience. Films like this often slip through the cracks, but this is good enough that it shouldn't. Don't let the subtitles scare you away either: this is better than the gang movies we get around here.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes