Sin Nombre on Blu-ray

Thursday, 28 January 2010 13:48

“Sin Nombre” (which means “without [a] name”) is a bit different from the films I normally choose to review on behalf of Cineology. It is an accessible, foreign art-house gangster film with a real heart. Édgar Flores stars as Willy, but he is better known by his gang title of El Casper. He is mixed up with a tough and very territorial Mexican gang called La Mara, most of the time doing their petty criminal work such as collecting “taxes” from local businesses (read: protection money).

However, occasionally he is also roped into more serious crimes like robbing already down-and-out waifs and strays, and killing rival gang members. La Mara is headed by Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta), an utterly ruthless and sadistic killer who is covered from head to toe with gang tattoos. Second in command is El Sol (Louis Fernando Peña); each member of the gang from him down has fewer tattoos as if to signify their lower ranking in the organisation.

Sin Nombre on Blu-rayCasper is already tiring of gang life and has found love, disastrously distracting him from his duties. Events then take a dire turn for the worse when the despicable Lil’ Mago accidentally kills Casper’s girlfriend whilst assaulting her, and it is not long before our anti-hero goes on the run northwards, towards the USA, after taking his chance to kill the gang’s leader.

Such an act cannot go unpunished, though, and Casper knows he will be relentlessly pursued by both members of his home gang and those from other branches spread across Mexico.

Meanwhile, attractive young Honduran woman Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) also takes the chance to travel with up to the Mexican/US border, in the company of her father and uncle. They have family in New Jersey, and see the US as very much the “promised land” in comparison with the impoverished life they are leaving behind.

Events conspire to bring Casper and Sayra together as they travel north on the top of cargo trains. It is a perilous journey at the best of times, what with the constant fear of traffic police and immigration patrols stopping them in their tracks, plus the constant hunger and thirst, but once the two parties combine, Casper’s deadly gang association raises the stakes further still.

Whilst “Sin Nombre” has a few shockingly violent scenes, the most prominent themes are of humanity amidst desperation and destitution, and of two fragile lives bound together, one of them seeking redemption, the other solace.  Haunting and realistic images abound of dozens of ragged immigrants clinging to the faint, flickering hope of a better life in North America, and the rusted freight train roofs. These are refugees who have uprooted themselves from their pitiful past lives and opted for what is essentially a terrible game of Russian roulette.

Even if they can elude the police, they are preyed on by gangs intent on taking their last few coins and possessions, have to sleep rough in decaying train yards and survive out in the elements. Despite this, they work together to cover each other in tarpaulins and bin bags whenever torrential rain falls, and pass water and food around on the rare occasions that it is available. Much warmth comes from these scenes of shared human struggle and co-operation.

Director Cary Fukunaga successfully manages to steep his entire film with affecting pathos – scenes of stark realism and yet also such beauty, both of the human spirit and of the sparse but often tranquil Mexican landscape as it sweeps past the train. The flipside is of course the horrendous ugliness and violence of gang life, and the coldness of those who perpetrate it. The bullying that Casper is subjected to before his escape seems tame in comparison with the single-minded feud that it triggers. He hides in the shadows whenever possible, covers up his distinctive gang tattoos and is permanently looking over his shoulder. He even picks subconsciously at his markings, as though he is trying to scrape away the guilt of his past, full-knowing they are permanent and that the emotional pain will remain with him.

The gang’s response is ironically led by his one-time friend, El Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), a 12-year-old man-child who is forced to grow up before his time as responsibility for Casper’s downfall is put on him. Or rather, he volunteers for the mission but you never know until the end of the film whether he secretly intends to stand by his friend and help him survive, or if he will turn on Casper in return for the clan respect he knows it will earn him. The tension of the build-up and then the chase whenever a gang member catches a glimpse of Casper is nail-biting, as the various characters weave around and under train cars and stalk each other around the train yard buildings. This is one very deadly game of cat and mouse.

Critical to the success of the film is the interplay between Casper and Sayra, and thankfully this element works wonderfully. Both actors are very natural in their roles, and help to make the whole situation feel completely unforced and organic. This is not a fairy tale; this is real life, and the story telling is compelling, emotive and gripping.

The Blu-ray release of the film features bold, vivid colours and superbly sharp, crisp detail. Having said that, it’s not essential to buy the HD format over the standard DVD disc, given the director’s penchant for unsightly, corroded trains, run-down stations and slums. The superb picture quality certainly does complement the landscapes and makes the subtitles much easier to read, however.

The sound is also accomplished, with the clickety-clack of the trains, the wind blowing through the trees and the rain pelting the immigrants. It is all very immersive. The musical soundtrack features pleasant and soulful acoustic guitar pieces.

“Sin Nombre” (certificate ‘15’) is released by Revolver Entertainment on 1 February 2010, priced £17.99 on DVD and £24.99 on Blu-ray, or pay less at

Both versions feature an insightful commentary track courtesy of the English-speaking writer/director and producer (Amy Kaufman), and a selection of deleted scenes.


Movie Review: “Sin Nombre” (2009)


Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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