Some films are marked by their ability to make a setting into a character. While not every place in the Mexican gangland in “Sin Nombre” is memorable, a realistic sense of place is one of the most memorable things about the film. It is set at the southern tip of Mexico, where wild and anarchic neighborhoods are pierced by two intricately linked groups of interlopers: warring gangs that patrol their turf and a steady stream of immigrants who must cross through at their own peril.
In particular the movie continually brings us back to a trash-strewn and graffiti-scrawled train depot there, called La Bombilla, where the film's protagonists jumble together with the railway ties and debris. These iron gardens of refuse grow haunting characters. Principally, there's Casper (Edgar Flores), a young man of around 19, who is helping to indoctrinate a much younger gang aspirant, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), whom we see take a savage beating and kill another man as part of the initiation into a gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, with members spread across the United States and Central America.
This local chapter of the gang is led by Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta) and El Sol (Luis Fernando Pena), leading a wild pack of young men who congregate at a ramshackle base full of drugs, booze and homemade weapons, where they plan heists, murders and other violent crimes. Governed by a twisted idea of fraternity — like Larenz Tate's O-Dog in “Menace II Society” and Tupac Shakur in “Juice” — Huerta's young criminal is an unforgettable example of juvenile fury. His Lil' Mago has the gang's number, 13, inked the full length of his face in tattoo, like a cobra head, an unmistakable warning of lawlessness.
This half of the cast collides at La Bombilla with Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her father and uncle, immigrants trying to make the long, arduous and illegal journey to the United States. The film has tracked them from Honduras, where Sayra's father has returned to bring her and her brother back over the border all the way to New Jersey. The two older men don't impress Sayra, even though she is only of high school age. They have no money. Their flimsy and ill-defined map ends somewhere in the middle of Texas. They ride illegally on top of a train, hanging on through the shifting landscape.
Casper, Lil' Mago and Smiley encounter the family while robbing the other passengers who cling to the train. As it bumps along, Lil' Mago pins Sayra with the intention of molesting her or worse, perhaps raising buried feelings in the already gang-weary Casper. Casper ejects his companions from the train, only to bear the hostility of those he'd recently abused. Now outcast from both societies, Casper helps Sayra and other immigrants on their journey while trying to figure out what to do with himself if he manages to survive the gang's retribution.
For a while it feels as if “Sin Nombre” is setting up a grand showdown of morality between Casper and the forces that hound him, but its conclusion is at once smaller and more fatally ambitious. At just over an hour and a half, the movie is essentially divided into its two social issues. The Mara Salvatrucha gang is represented by a couple of small Mexican-based cliques, but like the larger gang it is a part of (some estimates place its membership at 100,000), these local Mara and their rivals have a hand in all aspects of illegal immigration, pushed around violently in a society crippled by poverty.
Director Cary Fukunaga, working from his own screenplay, becomes too interested in these social issues raging under the story to maintain a firm grip on the characters and suspense. We lose Casper somewhere when he begins to see himself as a sacrificial vessel for Sayra's deliverance, a direction too overtly romantic for the fragile realism of the streetwise milieu Fukunaga has so painstakingly created.
Ambitions fail the promising filmmaker at the end, when memorable people and images give way to melodrama and typical action sequences. Just as the characters make it to their destiny, we lose sight of where they were meant to take us. Hopefully Fukunaga finds his way again and delivers on the promise of this absorbing but flawed first feature. (R) 96 min. HHHHI S