Friday, March 20, 2009


By D.E.Levine

Director and Writer: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Producer: Amy Kaufman
Executive Producers: Gerado Barrera, Pablo Cruz, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal
Cast: Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores, Kristyan Ferrer, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Diana Garcia, Luis Fernando Pena, Hector Jimenez
Dialogue: Spanish/English
Running Time: 96 minutes
Genre: Drama

Writer/Director Cary Joji Fukunaga's feature debut is a fascinating tale of Central American migrants making the dangerous trip through Mexico to get to the United States and cross the border illegally. Shot primarily with an unknown cast, the film is believable, if a bit long and Fukunaga admits that he made the perilous trip himself several times so that he could write about it realistically. The unusal thing about this film is that while other people have told tales of migrants after they arrive at the border, this film centers on the problems of the trip and survival of the immigrants before they actually get anywhere.

There are a number of stories interwoven here and coming together through the migrants' travels. One story line centers on the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Chiapas in southern Mexico. Watching one of the members of the gang (Casper) bring a 12 year old into the gang through the indoctrination of being beaten almost to death and then killing an enemy, the viewer is horrified at the rite of passage that is customary in order for young boys to join the gang. The gang leader Lil'Mago has a face and body totally covered with dense tatoos. Despite the grungy gang compound and the always present threat of violence, there is a camradity present that is lacking in the lives of those not belonging to the gang.

Another theme focuses on a teenager (Sayra) in Honduras joining her long-absent father and uncle to travel to New Jersey. Treking across the jungles in Guatelmala and across the river in Mexico, they hop a freight train to the northern border. Hundreds of people wait near the tracks at night and climb to the roofs to ride hundreds of miles exposed to the elements.

The two stories merge when Lil' Mago forces Casper and the newly inducted 12-year old (Smiley) to join him in robbing the defenseless immigrants on top of the train. Lil' Mago's assault on Sayra causes Casper to kill him with a machete, toss him off the train, and become a marked man for having killed the gang leader.

Sending Smiley home, Casper and Sayra join forces to elude gang members and make it to the border. There is violence, bloodshed, horror, and anticipation as these two form a bond while fleeing the gang members in an effort to reach the USA.

The visual effect of the trek through the folliage of the jungles (not actually in Guatamala due to lack of finances), the hordes of people making the trek to the north to cross over illegally, and the strange bond that forms between Casper and Sayra are intriguing and tantalizing. The train scenes are a bit too long though, as the redundancy of riding the train in the elements is pointed out repeatedly, perhaps more often than necessary since it causes the film to drag a bit. While appealing, it's also hard to understand why the girl immediately trusts a gang member, despite the fact that he saved her from assault. He's heavily tatooed and does nothing to cover his markings from his fellow travelers or those hunting him. Instead, dressing in brightly colored tank tops that make him even more noticeable, one has to wonder whether he really thinks he can save her and make it to the border or whether he considers himself to be doomed.

Overall, the viewer does believe the actors, the stories and the violence and is caught unprepared for the ending.