Home > Film, Movie Project > Sin Nombre: Looking at Family Relationships Through the Barrel of a Gun

Sin Nombre: Looking at Family Relationships Through the Barrel of a Gun

In a brief, one sentence tagline Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre seems like it would be a natural venture for Michael Bay: a man runs from his gang after killing a high-ranking officer, and crosses path with a young girl and her family as they both make the treacherous journey from Mexico to sneak across the border to Texas.  Now, if this was a Michael Bay film, after an hour of running, running, explosions, car chases, and running would be followed by an hour of gunfights and running, interspliced with a faux-philosophical debate by the Minute Men who intercepted the illegal immigrants.  The surprise twist ending would show one of the civilian vigilantes falling in love with the girl, to the disdain of the ex-gang member.  An epic showdown at the border would be followed by the tear-jerking ending: the girl and the Minute Man would go live on happily ever after (well until she realized – no, no too easy) and everyone else would be deported.  This, of course, would setup Sin Nombre 2: Revenge of El Casper (produced by Michael Bay, directed by Robert Rodriguez).

Thankfully, this is my first independent movie week of the project at the forever quirky Main Art Theater in Royal Oak.  With an old style lobby, a comfortable lounge off to the side, and a theater that actually looks like a theater (complete with an old film projector clinking in the background).  This isn’t the type of theater to go see a Michael Bay extravaganza. Instead, Fukunaga’s film takes place almost exclusively on top of a train and is a character-centric piece looking at the different forms that acceptance and family take.

Fukunga (who took home Sundance’s directorial award for the film) avoids many suspense movies clichés by keeping the focus on the three main characters.  Smiley, a kid who is being initiated into the Mara Salvatrucha, mentored by the more experienced El Casper.  El Casper leaves the gang when he murders the second-in-command, stopping him from raping Sayra, a Honduran immigrating to the USA with her newly reunited family.  Smiley, told to leave by El Casper, is sent to kill Casper to prove his loyalty to the gang.  The few action scenes in the film are simple gunfights – low-key and not for spectacle; they’re only around to showcase the depraved lifestyle of the gangsters.  Smiley’s first kill uses a crude, makeshift gun – two pieces of metal that are pushed together to eject the bullet.  The rest of the film he carries a simple six-shot revolver.  Even the more modern guns are worn down – duck taped together, beat up, and just barely hanging on.  Carrying a gun is a badge of honor for the gang – but Fukunga makes it clear it’s not akin to carrying the Sword of Excalibur.  Even as Smiley proudly showcases his gun to his young friends there is no triumph – while Smiley grins widely and talks with a boastful voice, his friends are tentative and afraid of what has happened to him.  The weird politics and relationships of gang life are further revealed as Smiley works his way north tracking Casper.  Each member takes the betrayal seriously, even though they are cities away, joining in the pursuit.  Smiley’s young age doesn’t seem to matter, just that he doesn’t fail the Mara’s again.  At the end, when he confronts Casper, Smiley ignores the bond between him and his former mentor – and the horrible feeling of his first kill – to cement his status in the gain.  He finds what he wanted – a family to join.  Smiley considers the life he’ll have to lead necessary and worthwhile to be accepted.

Smiley is a sharp contrast to Casper and Sayra – who leaves the gang after his girlfriend is killed in a botched rape by the second-in-command.  Casper finds a begrudging companionship with Sayra, the girl he saved from rape by the second-in-command.  Sayra just recently became reunited with her father and uncle to take the trip to the USA.  She’s doesn’t feel like a member of the family, refusing a picture of her mother by telling her father: “I don’t want a picture of your family.”  She and Casper form a friendship on the basic principle that we’re stuck on a train, and you saved me.  Simple enough.  Of course, running away from your old gang whose leader you murdered doesn’t help any relationship. Casper tries to keep an arms length between him and Sayra, but after she abandons her biological family to go with him he has no choice but to protect her.

Sayra and Casper are the antithesis of most Hollywood couples – Fukunga resists the Michael Bay urge for them to have sex – and you actually see a relationship develop out of mutual trust and admiration.  However, lurking in the background is the idea that Casper must die.  Even he knows it’s inevitable, going to great lengths to ensure that Sayra crosses to the US before he’s gunned down.  It makes there relationship more unique and tragic – when he finally seems to come to terms with accepting Sayra as more than a friend, he’s murdered by his former family member, Smiley.  Sin Nombre doesn’t just show us the importance of family, but also falling in with the right group.  As Smiley is tattooed at the end, finalizing his acceptance into the gang, he’s torn.  He killed his one friend, who genuinely cared for Smiley, but by doing so gained a new family.  Sayra, however, lost not only her biological family but her adopted one as well.  She places a call to an unknown family member in the US, and her voice breaks as the excited voice on the other end yammers with excitement.

Sin Nombre avoids a lot of clichés that would have made the film just another simple flick.  But Fukunga keeps the focus on the characters, and lets the talented actors shine through.  Fukunga and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman (who grabbed the Sundance cinematography award for his work), smartly shy away from HD cameras but stick to 35mm film stock; adding a warmth and a subtle backdrop on a movie that takes place mainly on a train.  The image is less clear and sharp – especially when projected at the Main Theatre in Royal Oak – than an HD movie.  But the haze and lack of definition in the background help the audience feel unsure of what will happen to three characters next.

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