Not by the hand of God, but by that of the devil. No truer words could be spoken when concerning young Sayra’s journey from Honduras to America in the film Sin Nombre. Here is a movie that lives up to the hype and more, intertwining her tale of finding freedom and her partner’s, the walking dead gang member Willy, aka Casper, need to forgive himself. The debut feature length from Oakland native Cary Fukunaga is a suspenseful story of the heart, showing that no matter preconceptions or fear, love will conquer all. Who needs the stripper with a heart of gold when you can have the gangbanger who has known love? Casper is a youth way beyond his years, seeing things no one would wish on another, but always able to escape to his girlfriend Martha, an untouched soul in a life soaked in blood. Without her, there is nothing else to lose, and this tale shows us how one’s humanity can surface when the constraints of the group cease to matter; Casper is given the chance to atone for his mistake and the girl he was unable to protect.
From the start, we are shown both Casper and Sayra separately, both setting off onto an inevitable collision course. He is shown with Martha, played by Diana Garcia, as well as in his role with the gang as a close comrade to leader The Magician. Édgar Flores portrays the boy with both the compassion of someone in love and the ambivalence/blind loyalty to the family that has taken him in. He is assigned the duty of ushering in newcomer Smiley, helping to initiate him with a mass beat down—unafraid to get his own licks in—and first murder of a rival gang member. Desperately attempting to keep Martha away from the horrors of his day-to-day life, her curiosity and jealousy, thinking she is a secret so that he may fool around with other girls while with the group, embroils her into the mix, setting Casper off onto a road of revenge, one that could only end with the gang catching up for their own retribution. While on the run, mourning his loss, he crosses paths with Sayra, Paulina Gaitan, traveling atop a train with father and uncle, in her attempt to go north. We learn she is on her way to live with her Dad’s new family in New Jersey, but without Casper, those aspirations could have ended very early on. As a result, she forms a bond with him, trusting that he may just be her savior.
So, the entirety of the movie runs the course of their trek through Mexico, she avoiding immigration and he the bullet he can feel bearing down on him. Despite the danger facing both, neither shows fear as they have lived their lives to reach this point. Casper is attempting to finally do right for once while Sayra knows she will make it to America, remembering the words of a creepy witch who foretold it. As a result, both continue on, narrowly missing tragedy as rival gangs partake in open air gun fights, immigration chasing down those on the train for deportation, and friends willing to help eventually turning them in, the ability to lie to the gang unquestionably impossible. Just when they feel as though they are alone in the world, they find each other, kindred souls from completely opposite parts of society’s food chain. Able to rely on the other and lean on them for support, they appear to fly with the wings of God guiding them, unless of course it is the devil sending them on a path headed to oblivion.
Every single actor involved is realistic down to the tattoos and dirt caking their bodies. Each character needs to rise above their constraints and become bigger than how others see them. Gaitan is given the challenge of making Sayra a vulnerable girl needing protection, while also containing the strength and fortitude to have the back of a killer that saved her life. She tells her uncle that she could go north by herself if needed, that her father and he didn’t need to protect her, yet only when she leaves them to join Casper do we see if it was all just bark or actual bite. Even young Kristian Ferrer as Smiley has to act his way from scared little boy to man willing to kill for his homies. Once afraid to pull the trigger on his makeshift gun, Ferrer soon finds the blood in his veins to be ice cold, participating in a firefight and being given the opportunity to avenge his leader’s death, showing how much he cares for the neighborhood. His quest behind the scenes—always close on the heels of Casper—is just as engrossing as the pair escaping for the border. We never know if this boy will be overcome by the weight and seriousness of it all or even if he will be turned against as a co-conspirator in The Magician’s demise.
But it is the role that plays within all these sub-stories that ultimately shines brightest. Flores’ Casper is a thing of beauty. Full of nuance and emotion, he is equally great at pulling off the confident street thug as the lovesick spirit, depressed from failing to protect the only thing that mattered to him. He must be strong for Sayra, quick on his toes and with his mind, to figure out how to get to the border, eluding the authorities and the guys out to kill him. The interior storm brewing within is seen through his façade’s stoicism, being the rock for his new friend and putting her safety ahead of his. For Casper, this is a story of redemption and absolution; overcoming the lifestyle he chose for a path that cherishes human life above that of a made-up brotherhood. Fukunaga and his crew keep us close to the ground so as to follow his every step, constantly going back to each vantage point on their tail to keep the sense of danger and tension high. The shooting style is kinetic during action scenes and mesmerizing when toned-down to show the human relationships being created. Sin Nombre is a lyrical composition that builds towards its crescendo from the first frame, jarring in its periodic instances of staccato, conducting us on towards the only ending that would do the story justice. There aren’t many films better at getting so much humanity, suspense, evil, and hope for the future of mankind than here.
Sin Nombre 10/10