Remember the supposed resurgence of Westerns over the last two years? There was 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will be Blood and No Country For Old Men among others, but not much since the latter's Best Picture win. Looks can be deceiving, though, and just because there aren't any stirrups, 10-gallon hats and dusty Main Street showdowns in theaters right now doesn't mean the Western's been put out to pasture. Its setting has simply shifted from the Southwest to South of the Mexican border, its protagonists no longer tight-lipped Hollywood hunks, but young, desperate dreamers scrambling North from Latin America. Immigration movies are the new Westerns, and Sin Nombre is the refashioned genre's latest iteration.
Cary Joji Fukunaga's debut follows two teens' converging paths towards a train heading from Southern Mexico to the United States. Trains–an underused Western trope of late–haven't looked this great since The Wild Bunch. In fact, it's a shame more of Sin Nombre isn't set atop the various trains that ferry countless migrants towards the U.S. border daily. In these places that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, the hodge-podge of nameless dreamers and displaced souls presents a compelling study in survivalism. Who will passengers speak to? Who remains an outcast even among this trainload of outcasts? What rituals of daily life are trotted out at every pit stop? How is a brutally vulnerable situation made livable?
Instead, Sin Nombre follows a chase structure not unlike No Country. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is traveling from Guatemala towards the American border with her father and uncle. Willy (Edgar Flores) lives in the South of Mexico, and is prepping a train robbery with members of his gang. The delicate balance of tensions quickly topples, though, and Willy joins Sayra's group on the trains, hoping to evade his vengeful gang-mates and the bribable immigration forces that appear regularly for payment. Another echo of Cormac McCarthy's mythic West is the gang leader Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejiacute), whose terrifying charisma is the kind of elemental evil distilled to its purest in the Judge Holden character from Blood Meridian. Sadly, Mago is in too few scenes to really steal this show.
Instead, Sayra and Willy split and eventually share the bulk of screen time. As is too often the case with this new breed of Western, though, sparse and monosyllabic dialog is less a symptom of crushing pathos than a result of poorly defined characters. Here, the thematic dilemma is no longer the viability of the American Dream and its delicate balance between individualism and community. Instead, immigration movies assume the green pastures of the land of plenty are unquestionably worth the dehumanizing hardships taken to get there. Sin Nombre briefly acknowledges this generic blind spot, when Sayra muses early on that she'd be happier if she stayed in Guatemala.
Entertaining such an unsettling question, though, wouldn't allow for much tense editing and dazzling cinematography. Following Sangre de Mi Sangre (like Nombre, a big winner at Sundance) and Crossing Over, Sin Nombre seems less interested in asking why this mass migration continues despite its brutally stacked odds than in filming it like a kinetic genre epic. Fukunaga, editor Craig McKay and cinematographer Adriano Goldman certainly succeed in this respect. But without much substance under its pretty packaging, Sin Nombre will likely wind up another nameless entry for a genre that's still looking for a Stagecoach to follow.