Long is the Way, and Hard, That Out of Hell Leads Up to Light2009 // USA - Mexico // Cary Fukunaga // April 19, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B - Here is a simple story, familiar almost to the point of triteness. A Good Woman searching for a better life in a faraway land and a Bad Man haunted by his past meet by happenstance on the road. They bond, after a fashion, and gradually the fates of these two travelers become entwined. In Sin Nombre, the stark directorial debut from Cary Fukunaga, the Good Woman is a young Honduran named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), heading across Latin America with her father and uncle to an uncertain, undocumented life in New Jersey. The Bad Man is a Mexican gangster known as Willy (Edgar Flores), who is fleeing the wrath of his gang after having committed the gravest of sins. The road they share is a freight train heading north, towards Estados Unidos. In most reviews, this would be the point where I suggest that the particulars don't really matter, that Sin Nombre plumbs thematic territory that transcends its setting. Yet I can't, in good conscience, make that claim. The Timeless Story that Fukunaga is striving for is modestly successful, hindered by occasional clumsiness and all-too-frequent contrivances. Sin Nombre's principal appeal is firmly grounded in its specifics. The details of his setting—both sulfurous and sweet—lend the film a mythic richness that the creaky story and weakly drawn characters fail to convey.
Sin Nombre's first shots are some of its most fascinating. I hesitate to say that the film goes downhill from there, but it is a mysterious and wondrous bit of cinematic poetry that promises a bit more than Fukunaga eventually delivers. Stretching out before us is a breathtaking autumn forest, positively glowing with scarlet leaves. The Hudson Valley perhaps? Then we see Willy, also known as El Casper, a Mexican street thug, old beyond his years already with teardrop tattoo, a smattering of scars, and a requisite "conflicted tough guy" demeanor. The relationship between Willy and the almost fantastical woodland scene is not immediately apparent. (Is it a dream? A memory?) Then the film unites the two elements: the forest is revealed to be a floor-to-ceiling landscape photo that covers one wall of Willy's bedroom, which the young tough regards with hazy distraction. Then the reverie is broken, and Willy returns to the reality of his barrio existence. His cartel has tasked him to mentor an initiate, an eager-to-please kid named Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) who is still years from his first whiskers. However, Willy's secret liaisons with a Nice Girl on the (literal) other side of the tracks proves to be a distraction, landing him and Smiley in hot water with their diabolical boss, Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta).
Meanwhile, in Honduras, Sayra is about to set out on a grueling journey to the United States, accompanied by her uncle and a father she has not seen in ages. She exudes the silent discontent of a young woman weary of following the advice of others, but too diffident to do otherwise. Blunt and anxious, her father makes her repeat a string of numbers out loud as they trudge overland through scorching fields. This is the phone number for his New Wife, the mother of his Other Children, who dwell in distant New Jersey. It's not clear what exactly Sayra thinks of starting over in a foreign land with these people, but she's plainly not thrilled with the notion.
From the outset, there is zero doubt that Sayra and Willy will cross paths eventually, so the only question is whether Fukunaga handles their meeting and the eventual entanglement of their fortunes with skill. The answer is "Sort Of." Willy stumbles into Sayra and her family on board a freight train, where the gangster saves the woman from a grisly fate, in a character reversal that is both ridiculous and completely understandable. Given that Sin Nombre is, in essence, a romantic tragedy sans eroticism, Sayra is, of course, drawn to this mysterious gangster, contrary to the advice of her father and all common sense. The woman claims that a fortune-teller told her she would reach the United States in the hands of the Devil, and, in her eyes, Willy is obviously that fiend. (Personally, I found this to be an irksome bit of off-screen ex post facto characterization.)
This sort of thing is emblematic of the broader problems that plague Sin Nombre's screenplay. Fukunaga runs afoul of a narrative gracelessness with sufficient regularity that it borders on the off-putting. The film has a distressing tendency to imitate the sort of lazy, evasive plotting that is endemic to bad thrillers. Hence its reliance on reversals and chance encounters that serve no purpose beyond satisfying a particular scene's tension quota, or perhaps providing an escape hatch whenever Fukunaga writes himself into a corner. Characters perish suddenly; traitors are revealed; violence erupts and then peters out without consequence. It's all presented in a fairly rote and inert manner, signifying with dismal resolve that Sin Nombre is not a commentary on the cruel and fickle character of the universe, just an unremarkable adventure tale. Thank goodness, then, that the film invigorates in spite of its sloppy and often silly story.
The film's heart is its ferocious and haunting realization of ancient motifs within a twenty-first century Latin American milieu. Fukunaga adapts forms that will be familiar to any student of Greek tragedy or Renaissance poetry. Sin Nombre evokes both the plutonic visions of an Orphic journey as well as the grotesque geography of Dante and Milton, all without declaring itself the successor of any particular mythical or literary tradition. Though it might echo familiar narrative frameworks, its iconography and spaces are thoroughly its own.
In other words, what Sin Nombre does exceptionally well is conjure an utterly immersive and haunting stage for its essentially feeble story, enlivening that story through sheer style. Fukunaga lures us into the twin tales of Sayra and Willy by creating a world that seems to exist in a moral and cosmological twilight. His Mexico, in particular, seems peopled with lost souls, some aching to move on, some content to rule their twisted little domains as resident demons. One is tempted to simply catalog the mesmerizing and chilling locales that Fukunaga presents. There is a railyard purgatory, mired in garbage, where travelers quake in anticipation whenever the trains lumber in like fuming behemoths. Or the cemetery where tattooed gangsters brew their schemes, looking for all the world like skeletal fiends as their cavort among the graves with their guns. Or the muddy-green waters of the Rio Grande, with death-infested reeds on one side and a dubious Wal-Mart Elysium on the other. This is a film redolent with the odors of a waking Hell: diesel, cordite, blood, broken blisters, shit, ash. However, Fukunaga also lights the path northward with daubs of sunlight: a bouquet of flowers, a warm tortilla wolfed down gratefully, a glimpse of a distant saint on a mountainside.
What's refreshing about Sin Nombre's marvelous texture is that it resists feverish searches for symbolism, of the obvious or obscure variety. Rather, Fukunaga revels in the literal elements of his setting: water, vegetation, metal, plastic, mud, dust, cloth, ink. Here is a director who plainly adores the material he's working with—the wretchedness of it, the beauty of it, and the terror of it—and doesn't need a reason to graft on ponderous layers of connotation. The film rarely gets bogged down in winking allusions, even when it could go for the cheapest of metaphors. A Messiah-like sacrifice late in the film is presented with severity and anguish that derive entirely from its immediate, tragic impact. What it "means" or symbolizes isn't all that fundamental to the potency of Fukunaga's presentation. This is a film that burns its resonant imagery into your mind, like a harrowing dream of escape and deliverance that refuses to fade in the light of day.