Smiley, the youngest character in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s dazzling debut, gets his nickname after a brutal initiation involving the furious feet of a Central American street gang. The savage choreography is based on the moves of the Mara Salvatrucha, a real-life organization whose savagery is legendary. Smiley emerges from his ordeal with a bloody grin, and that’s how Sin Nombre sets itself up for a downward spiral of mayhem. Yet for all its raw simplicity, the film manages to conjure a veritable library of references including, but not limited to, Sophocles, Steinbeck, John Ford, Ozzy Osbourne, and, especially to these eyes, William T. Vollmann.
Illegal-immigrant tales typically deal with the trauma of crossing borders and the fate that befalls those who make it to the other side. In Sin Nombre, you’re lucky if you even make it to the border. The story follows young Willy and Sayra (almost lovers and on the run) as they make their way by freight train through Mexico to the Texas frontier. They travel primarily by freight train. As they pause along the way, the camera delves deeper into indigenous atmospherics, showing a fragile, desperate world far off gringo radar.
The couple are pursued by Smiley and his unsavory mentors, the latter on a trail of vengeance set in motion by a macabre individual named Lil’ Mago—one of the most gloriously realized screen villains in recent memory (you will shudder when you see him caress an infant). Who, if anyone, will make it to the end credits?