Before Cary Fukunaga lent some considerable panache to the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre, where he was aided by the rising-but-self-dampening star of Mia Wasikowska and anglerfish scowls of Michael Fassbender, he directed a more colorful take on frail girl meets dark and mysterious stranger. Just how guerrilla he went for his debut feature Sin Nombre is hard to tell, though he certainly shows that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Pairing an archetypical tragedy with a ground level look at Central American politics, he somehow creates a surprisingly cohesive, self-contained story without ever being heavy-handed. the unrecognizable actors only add to the feeling of immersion, and all handily convey a sense of real-world exhaustion and community with the less-than-ideal surroundings they find themselves in.
At the center of the drama are the compelling family dynamics surrounding Sayra, a Honduran girl whose estranged father plans to smuggle her into the U.S. where he has been working. Journeying atop a train loaded with other immigrants, they survive a close encounter with a trio of gangsters when reluctant gang member El Caspar turns on his companions and rescues Sayra when she’s targeted for rape. His rescue sparks a tug of war for Sayra’s affections as she reaches out to him under the anxious eye of her ever more exasperated father. Sayra is utterly spellbound by El Caspar’s visceral act of compassion, the kind of grandstanding heroics that befit his dangerous background, and as her infatuation grows deeper it’s all the more devastating to see her hardworking, well meaning family spurned. She doesn’t benefit from the insight the movie has gleaned from El Caspar’s gang, which show the muffled line between reciprocated loyalty and brutal subservience practiced by its members. She doesn’t understand that her family has sheltered her from such ugliness until now, and she also doesn’t know to what extent El Caspar is implicated in the gang’s assault on her and her fellow travelers in the first place. What follows is a quite maddening look into her craving for human contact, and with her unformed conception of family and love, she clings to the first person who gives her what she feels to be genuine love.
What’s most striking, beginning with the very first scene, is how breathtakingly gorgeous everything is. Strangely for a post-Traffic crime movie, Sin Nombre eschews the grainy, filtered look of untold recent thrillers, unburdening itself from the oppressive aesthetic reminder that it’s trying really hard to depict human misery and desperation. Instead it soaks up the rich colors of crumbling slums, weed strewn rail yards, and the constantly encroaching jungle, dropping humanity’s comparatively small conflicts into a Malickian paradise. Always there is the simultaneous implication that the characters, ignorant of the surrounding natural beauty, are overwhelmed by their surroundings and that their unfolding dramas don’t belong in such a place. That Fukunaga can suggest a state of grace without resorting to a tacky menagerie of tourist-baiting street scenes to offset the unnerving gang culture is testament to his knack for subtlety, in addition to a welcome relief. He trusts the audience to judge based solely on character, not to see characters as heroes, villains, foreigners, or immigrants. As such, he is able to establish a narrow focus and swift pace while drinking in the stunning countryside.
His shooting style may be a quiet bow of respect to his subjects, but there’s one particularly grim motif that reaches a greater depth than any other: the treatment of corpses onscreen. Thankfully, Fukunaga treats scenes of murder and mayhem with the same quiet direction, letting the characters’ intensity take precedence over style. Without spoiling too much, it goes without saying that at least a couple dead bodies are produced over the course of the story. At the moment a life extinguishes, the scene takes a wildly uncomfortable turn. While there is little else to suggest that voyeurism is a topic for discussion in Sin Nombre, in these moments Fukunaga makes the perpetrators feel the eyes of the world upon them. Unless I’m mistaken, every corpse lays with its face down in the ground. Living, feeling human beings are now shells of their former selves being gazed at in astonishment. As if the killers don’t know the consequences of their actions, a split second passes during which they find themselves dumfoundedly mourning what they have done, even if it stands against their reason for killing.
Liberated aesthetics notwithstanding, there unfortunately lies a big problem in the script’s insistence on a poetic ending, steered toward by the mismatched coupling of El Caspar and Sayra. It’s painful to say it, but the plot for this beautifully photographed, tightly scripted, tenderly directed, socially conscious movie is driven largely by the whims of an idiot. While the script seems to make an ample effort to expand on her motivations, Sayra’s every new decision seems to be worse than the last, and while it’s easy to agree with her that El Caspar is an okay guy deep down, it’s impossible to root for her when she makes one gratingly terrible decision after another while ignoring the pleas of her actually very decent father and uncle. This tragedy has played out so many times before that when she ties herself to El Caspar’s fate the writing is (literally, at one point) on the wall. When she succumbs to the corruption that her family is striving to shelter her from, she doesn’t just fall into it, she falls head over heels in love with it. There is no doubt by the end that she has completely lost her innocence, and in the worst possible way. Maybe her transition from damsel in distress to independent heroine (or more accurately co-dependent damsel) is supposed to be lauded, but the moment she takes her life into her own hands is the moment that this movie begs for people to yell at the screen.
Fukunaga is still a star on the rise. No one could call Jane Eyre a misstep by any means, though it certainly put a damper on his capacity to thrill. Still, that was undoubtedly a conscious effort on his part to cloak the 19th century romance in shadows and clouds. As one who hasn’t witnessed his work in HBO’s True Detective, I can only say that the best example of his work as of yet remains in the brilliantly shot Sin Nombre.