Death in film, even violent death, rarely comes as a great surprise. It is ordained, prefigured, meticulously set in motion. It takes place in settings where its presence seems natural--a battlefield, a house with a serial killer in it--or as the result of a confrontation between established antagonists. The music rises, the tension builds, and whammo: The century-long celluloid slaughter claims another victim.
This is not the case, however, in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s exceptional feature-film debut, Sin Nombre, which serves as a chronicle of deaths unforetold. Fukunaga’s body count is not high, and it is not unsympathetic. But it is, with few exceptions, startling--and not for the usual reason of a wallowing camera. Quite the opposite: A character is alive one moment and then, by intent or accident, is gone, almost before you have time to realize what happened.
This is not to say that Sin Nombre (which is Spanish for “nameless”) is a particularly violent film, at least by contemporary standards. Yes, there is violence in it, but violence is not the point of it. Fukunaga’s handling of these mortal episodes is merely the most dramatic example of the way his film keeps viewers off-balance. Though it is constructed from entirely recognizable, even conventional parts, Sin Nombre repeatedly subverts expectation. After opening with intimations that it will be an “issue” movie about the plight of Latino immigrants seeking to cross illegally into the United States, it quickly evolves into a hybrid of more popular genres: a gangster movie, a road movie, a low-key romance. But each time the film seems settled into a familiar arc, it instead unspools in an unexpected direction. Characters who seemed integral become peripheral (and vice versa), or depart the film altogether. Moreover, each swerve is organic; Fukunaga’s gift lies not in inventing clever reversals, but in declining to provide us with the typical cinematic cues that advertise what’s coming.
For this reason, I’ll be spare with plot details. (I would also recommend avoiding the not-nearly-so-reticent trailer.) A Honduran girl (Paulina Gaitan), her uncle (Guillermo Villegas), and her estranged father (Gerardo Taracena) attempt the treacherous journey across Mexico to enter the United States illegally. A young Chiapas foot-soldier in the street gang Mara Salvatrucha (Edgar Flores), juggling a murderous boss (Tenoch Huerta) and a pre-adolescent recruit (Kristian Ferrer), tries also to carve out a secret space for his bourgeois girlfriend (Diana Garcia). These two worlds intersect on a train--literally “on,” not “in”: these are freight-line roof-riders--that traverses Mexico on its precarious journey to the U.S. border. The tale that subsequently unfolds balances murder and mercy, retaliation and redemption.
Along the way, Fukunaga fills the frame with memorable images: the savage rituals of the Mara gang, whose demonic tattoos would inspire envy in the primeval warriors of Apocalypto; the barrages of generous fruit and bitter stones with which locals greet the rail-riding refugees who pass through their towns; the moments of quiet compassion between strangers tossed together. It’s rare for a film to marry documentary authenticity with cinematic beauty, but Sin Nombre manages the feat thanks to Adriano Goldman, whose work earned him the Cinematography Award at Sundance. (Fukunaga walked away with the directing prize.)
Like Fukunaga--the Oakland-born, Brooklyn-dwelling son of a Swedish-American mother and Japanese-American father--Sin Nombre has a transnational flavor. The film is in (well-subtitled) Spanish, right down to the credits; the uniformly persuasive cast includes both professional and amateur actors; and Mexican stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna are among the executive producers.
As the film winds to its climax, it peters out slightly, fulfilling rather than confounding expectations. Up to that point, however, it is a jolt to the system, a striking reminder of the degree to which most films spoon-feed themselves to us, preparing us for what we’re about to see as dutifully as parents presenting their kids with the agenda for a family trip. We may guess where Fukunaga’s freight train is headed, but the journey provides unanticipated pleasures.
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, by contrast, offers up pretty much exactly what you expect: The Sweetly Dorky, Virginal Hero (Jesse Eisenberg) whose dreams of a trip across Europe must be set aside in favor of a crummy summer job at a Pittsburgh amusement park; the Damaged, Beautiful Co-Worker (Kristen Stewart) who doesn’t quite believe she deserves to be happy; the Buff Other Man (Ryan Reynolds) and Bodacious Other Woman (Margarita Levieva); the Still-Dorkier Best Friend (Martin Starr); the Comic Support from SNL-Apatow Troupers (Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig). If you think you can envision how these pieces fit together, you are likely correct in every particular.
Yet for all its conventionality, Adventureland is a likable entertainment neatly executed. The first film Mottola has written and directed since 1996’s The Daytrippers (has it really been that long?), it lacks the range of its predecessor, and also the obscene genius of Superbad, the Apatow-produced, Rogen-penned comedy that Mottola directed in the interim. But thanks to a witty script and good performances, it transcends the familiarity of its components, if at times barely. (This is one of those male-lens films in which all the pretty girls hurl themselves at the nerd stand-in, explaining “I’d like to go out with a nice guy for a change,” and, still less probably, “You may be the coolest and the cutest guy I ever met.”)
As the amorously challenged protagonist, Eisenberg offers his individual brand of awkward stutter, which mixes the braininess of Woody Allen’s with the self-doubt of Michael Cera’s (though is never quite as memorable as either). This is the college student that Eisenberg’s nervous high-schooler in Roger Dodger would have grown to be had he never been exposed to the perverse tutelage of Uncle Roger. Kristen Stewart is a tougher read as the troubled love interest, relying on the same kit of tics--the bitten lip, the downcast eyes--that got her through Twilight. Whether there’s more to her as an actress is not yet clear. And the supporting cast is solid, with Hader and Wiig in particular offering the laughs one would hope for.
The story is set in 1987, and there are times when it feels that the film was created as an accompaniment for the soundtrack--which features the Replacements, Husker Du, Crowded House, Wang Chung, and generous helpings of Lou Reed--rather than the other way around. Still, it’s a pleasant enough musical stroll for those who remember the era. One of Mottola’s best jokes involves the inconceivable overplay of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” an aural atrocity that almost drove my entire generation to suicide. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better use of nostalgia: to remind us of the many things we miss from a particular time, and the one reason we would never, ever want to go back.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.