There may be no topic President Donald Trump likes to talk about more—aside from himself, of course—than illegal immigration. And as of late, his comments on the subject have repeatedly focused on the Mara Salvatrucha gang, aka MS-13, an outfit located on both sides of the border that’s renowned for its horrifying ruthlessness.
Just this past Saturday, the commander-in-chief again claimed that stricter immigration reform was needed to prevent these criminals from entering the country, declaring, “MS-13 gang members are truly, and you’ve heard me say it, animals—and yet Nancy Pelosi and Washington Democrats continue to protect them and to push for open borders.” (They are not advocating for open borders.) It was merely the latest in a long line of denunciations by Trump and his administration, including immigration hawks Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, which in turn have helped greatly raise the profile of the organization, whose ranks total approximately 10,000 in the U.S.
With members hailing from Central America (in particular, El Salvador), sporting full-body and facial tattoos, wielding machetes and makeshift firearms, and communicating via their own sign language, MS-13 has become our boogeyman du jour. And that, in turn, has once more amplified the political relevance of one of the past decade’s most startling cinematic debuts: Sin Nombre.
Cary Fukunaga’s maiden feature was justly hailed at the time of its 2009 release, earning three nominations (for Best Feature, Director and Cinematography) at the Independent Spirit Awards, and winning Directing and Cinematography honors at the Sundance Film Festival. The story of a young MS-13 member whose path crosses with that of a Honduran girl trying to slip into America with her father and uncle, Sin Nombre (translation: “Nameless”) is a bracing portrait of both life inside the notorious gang and the arduous course charted by those looking to surreptitiously enter the U.S. At once harrowing and empathetic, Fukunaga’s film eschews overt political commentary to instead provide something more illuminating: a forthright and frightening depiction of the multifaceted dangers faced by those living destitute lives in Latin America, and the equally treacherous peril that awaits them should they dare attempt to escape their circumstances.
Fukunaga (who subsequently found fame thanks to his stewardship of the first season of HBO’s True Detective) begins his material in expressionistic fashion, with a shot of a lush forest trail leading to a clearing that’s dreamily stared at, and then moved toward, by Casper (Edgar Flores). A native of Tapachula, a Mexican town not far from Guatemala, Casper is a loyal MS-13 soldier who’s ordered by his boss, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía)—whose face is covered in enormous tattoos—to bring young Benito (Kristyan Ferrer) in for a meeting. No matter that Benito’s grandmother vehemently objects to his hanging out with Casper, the kid complies. At that get-together, he’s surrounded in a circle, and then roundly kicked and punched by gang members for thirteen seconds. At the conclusion of this initiation ritual, he’s made an official MS-13 member, replete with the nickname “Smiley.”
That scene so faithfully echoes the reporting found in a recent Newsweek article—about an MS-13 recruit who secretly worked for the U.S. federal government—that it almost plays like a documentary. And such authenticity never wavers as Sin Nombre heads down its dual narrative tracks. Lil Mago is soon forcing Casper to help Smiley perform his first execution of a “chavala” (i.e. a punk, which here specifically refers to an 18th Street gang rival), all as Casper himself sneaks behind his leaders’ back to nurture a romance with feisty young girlfriend Martha Marlene (Diana García). Meanwhile, teen girl Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) agrees to let her father Horacio (Gerardo Taracena) take her and her uncle to America, where he was residing in New Jersey—replete with a new family—until deportation landed him back in Honduras.
Casper and Sayra’s concurrent storylines are destined to dovetail, but Fukunaga’s scripting is anything but predictable—and, consequently, feels in tune with a reality defined by terrifying volatility. When Lil Mago tries to rape, and then accidentally kills, Martha Marlene, and shortly thereafter aims to do likewise to Sayra during a robbery of migrant travelers huddled together on a train roof, Casper is inspired to exact bloody revenge. In doing so, he becomes public enemy number one to his fellow MS-13 mates—including Smiley, who’s threatened with death by vicious gang leader El Sol (Luis Fernando Peña) if he doesn’t successfully execute his former mentor. Casper’s noble deed thus only leads to further trouble, and that proves doubly true once Sayra, in response to being rescued by Casper, befriends him, believing he can help her reach American safely and that, in return, she can protect him from harm.
No matter which way one turns, or what choices one makes, death is omnipresent in Sin Nombre, and Fukunaga—as in a masterful single take following Casper and Smiley through their gang HQ—lays out this treacherous world with formal precision and heady immediacy. His gorgeous on-location imagery (courtesy of DP Adriano Goldman) conveys the ramshackle and unstable nature of this milieu and its inhabitants’ conditions. And his performances, in particular from Flores, Gaitán and the fresh-faced Ferrer (here functioning as the embodiment of vulnerable youth corrupted by monsters) are, like Marcelo Zarvos’s score, at once expressive and unaffected. As its characters travel by locomotive, car and on foot toward their fateful destination—specifically, a river stream that marks the divide between liberation and doom—the film delivers an up-close-and-personal view of individuals struggling to survive situations that afford few opportunities for salvation.
Throughout, Fukunaga refuses to pedantically make the case for or against illegal immigration, presenting his characters’ plight as merely a natural (and nasty) facet of life. Similarly, he does little to explicitly condemn MS-13, given that his matter-of-fact dramatization of their customs and behavior is more than enough to hammer home their remorseless sadism—as well as their amoral desire to swell their ranks by preying on society’s youngest and most innocent. Tackling gang-related immigration dynamics with complexity and suspensefulness, it’s a detailed and despairing look at people, and a part of the world, that are too often reduced to crude and inflammatory sound bites by our current powers-that-be. In today’s highly charged geopolitical climate, that makes Sin Nombre more pertinent than ever.