El Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) probably isn't even shaving yet, but there's a zip gun in his hands, and it's pointed at the head of a bound and bleeding man. If he kills this sacrificial offering, he'll prove his loyalty to the Mara Salvatrucha, and to El Casper (Edgar Flores), the older Mara member who's mentoring him into gang life. It's not easy to say no to El Casper, but it's even harder to defy Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the gang's leader. There's few movie villains as terrifying as Lil Mago, not because of how he's blackened his face with a gigantic, gothic "MS" tattoo, but how he prowls through the gang's arsenal/hideout and supervises the execution all while cuddling a baby, cooing to the frightened infant in calm and dulcet tones about how the "bad man" who El Smiley's about to murder "won't scare you anymore."
The tattooed, blood-soaked Mara are one of Mexico's tribes, but the blameless Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) belongs to another. Technically, she's not Mexican, but for these few weeks in her young life, this Honduran teenager belongs to the ubiquitous caravan of migrants trekking through Mexico on foot and by hazardous rail to El Norte. Her father said it would be difficult, but she should try to ignore the thirst and exhaustion and think of their trip as a grand adventure. He's soft-pedaling the danger--robbery, rape, and murder await them when a posse led by Lil Mago descends on her train. As he presses a gun to her cheek and cackles about how she's a little Salma Hayek suddenly what the psychic told her rings true--Sayra will reach the north, not in God's hands but in the devil's instead.
First-time writer/director Cary Fukunaga is not from Mexico, but the Mexico he creates feels dense, sticky, and multicolored, similar in flavor to movies directed by native sons Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, without feeling like he's a gringo aping their lush style. Also, despite its sympathy for all its protagonists, Sin Nombre doesn't aspire to Babel-sized meditations on Mexico's ills and a lecture on how we're all interconnected in a globalized world--a wise move, since this wisp of a story would snap under the weight of such pretentious intent. Fukunaga downsizes his movie's meaning to nothing more than sensual impressions and Milagro-sized melodrama between his well-sketched characters, which is exactly the right approach. Sin Nombre tells its story in 96 sweaty, sun-soaked minutes and then politely excuses itself at just the right time, leaving the audience satisfied and impressed.