Sin Nombre (2009)

Somehow the unfinished review of this excellent film was lost following my first viewing of the film almost 5 years ago. I am posting the completed review now because the film and the issues it raises so prophetically are perhaps even more relevant today when immigration, legal and illegal, have become part of the rhetoric of the US political campaign. Too often the loudest voices come from the most ignorant and prejudiced. Mr. Fukunaga’s film can inject truth and compassion into the on-going debate.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Our ratings: Violence 5 ; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.  When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.  Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

 Deuteronomy 24:19-22

…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,

I was a stranger and you welcomed me…

Matthew 25:35

BothAtopTrn 1

Sayra & Casper ride atop a train through the Mexican countryside. (c) Focus Features

 It is difficult to believe that this is director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s first feature film, so compact and powerful is its script with its deft portrayals of Hondurans seeking refuge from the deadly gang violence in their country. It is a film that I wish every American would see, especially those objecting to Central Americans trying to find safety and more opportunities here. According to reports, the director/writer was inspired to make the film by a 2003 news story about 80 illegal immigrants found locked in a truck and abandoned in Texas. 19 of them had died. Also he saw near the border the words “Sin Nombre” crudely written on pieces of cardboard, serving as markers for those who perished trying to cross into what they hoped would be a land of freedom.

The Spanish phrase means “the nameless,” and so Fukunaga takes on the task of giving names to them in his story, the two principal ones being Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) and El Casper (Edgar Flores). The latter is a hapless Mexican teenager who belongs to a gang headed by the vicious Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). They put El Casper’s 12 year-old friend “El Smiley” (Kristyan Ferrer) through a violent initiation, and a little later Mago kills El Casper’s girl friend while trying to rape her. Demanding absolute obedience from his members, Mago matter-of-factly tells Casper that he will find another girl friend.

Meanwhile teenaged Sayra is traveling atop a freight train through Guatemala and Mexico along with her father, and her uncle, their destination New Jersey where they have relatives. The gang boards the slow moving train during a heavy rain. The travelers, huddling for protection under plastic tarps, are easy prey for the robbers. When Lil’ Mago spots the pretty Sayra, he attempts to rape her, but El Casper, possibly remembering his girl friend intervenes, killing the leader in the process. He urges Smiley to jump off the train, but stays himself, knowing that he can never return home again. He also is well aware that the gang has ways of communicating with other gangs up the tracks, so that there will be retribution to pay. He is right, in that Smiley when he returns home, to prove he was not involved in killing Mago, takes an oath that he will follow and kill his former friend.

During the trip Sayra becomes close to her rescuer, and he in turn, helps her and the others on top of the train avoid officials along the way. The refugees jump off on the far side of the train as it approaches certain villages, run alongside it, and then climb back on board after it has passed the checkpoint. For a period the two, separated from her father and uncle, become lovers, but hovering over them is the specter of Smiley and other gang members on the lookout for El Casper.

The film gives us a clear picture of people in such desperate need that they leave their homes and make the dangerous journey to a distant land they know only by reports about the safety and abundant living it promises. They are victimized by predators, but in one beautiful scene, they also are recipients of grace from generous villagers who rush to greet the train slowly passing through their village—not just with encouraging greetings and goodwill gestures, but also with food. Everyone brings pieces of fruit, tossing it up to the hungry passers-by. This scene of good will and generosity is quickly over, but it stands out as the happiest moment of an otherwise grim story. Sin Nombre is worthy of placing alongside Gregory Nava’s now classic 1983 film El Norte. Such films not only help us understand the plight of those desperate for a better life, but also challenge us to do whatever we can to ease their plight, the least of which is to combat the prejudice and ill will that would turn them away from our shores.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.

Sicario (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 8; Language 7; Sex /Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

Isaiah 5:20

 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:11-12


FBI Agent Kate Macer narrowly escapes from being blown up during a raid on a drug haven. (c) Lionsgate Films

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s and scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan’s new film really puts WAR into the War on Drugs. In response to the murderous business practices of the Mexican drug cartels the area on both sides of the Rio Grande has become a war zone—and neither side pays any heed to the Geneva Convention Rules of War. Amidst what becomes a moral morass Emily Blunt’s idealistic FBI agent Kate Macy experiences a rude awakening to what the War on Drugs has become—from a law and order or justice cause to one of cruel revenge by means of operations that ignore international boundaries and the taking into custody and treating those arrested with fairness.

The film begins with a note informing us that the title comes from the time of the Jewish Zealots’ uprising against their Roman occupiers when a band of killers known as the Sicario hunted down and killed Romans. Then we see a SWAT team, of which Kate Macer is a member, crash into a house in an Arizona development, killing the gang members who resist. When an agent notices scrapes and holes in the wall, he tears away the dry wall and discovers a badly decomposing body. Tearing away more of the drywall, other bodies are discovered wrapped in plastic sheets or bags. All in all there are more than three dozen found, the stench now so overwhelming that many of the agents rush outside, either to vomit or to breathe fresh air. Then a padlocked underground chamber is discovered in a shed. An agent obtains cutters to open it, setting off a massive explosion. Kate, just coming out of the door to the house is knocked to the ground, and two agents in the shed are killed. The camera pulls back for one of many shots that reveal the desert landscape.

Kate and her black partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), sit outside a conference room where a group agents from various alphabet soup organizations discuss them. They decide to accept Kate onto a new team because of her experience in managing a SWAT team but reject Reggie because he is relatively new to the FBI. However, we will see quite a lot of him because he is used to chauffer the new team from mission to mission.

The group leader is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who smiles a lot, but gives out little information to the new recruit, telling her for now just to watch and learn. He wears on his feet flip-flops, so she wonders what agency he comes from. When he asks why she might accept her new position, she replies that she wants to get those responsible for the horrific killings in the raided drug house. Even less talkative is the Hispanic team member identified only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose glower suggests he is not a man to trifle with.

Even more exciting, and bloody than the earlier raid, is the episode of the Americans crossing in a big caravan of vans from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Their mission is to pick up a drug lord and transport him back to the U.S. to stand trial, though later Matt says it is to create chaos in the man’s drug cartel so those even higher up will make a fatal mistake. We lean tensely forward as the caravan moves at fast pace through litter-filled Mexican neighborhoods where naked mutilated bodies hang upside-down from an overpass. They pick up their prey from prison without incident, but then get stuck in a massive traffic jam near the border crossing, all agents looking keenly at the cars on both sides of their caravan. Sure enough, they spot suspicious, tattooed characters in neighboring cars, as well as several gun barrels. When the thugs get out of their cars, the agents also leap into the lanes, getting the drop on the goons and killing everyone of these amidst the panicked cries of civilians in the other cars.

Told to stay in the van, Kate still kills one of the attackers when he approaches her van and smashes one of the windows. Shaken by all the slaughter, and on the Mexican side at that, Kate angrily berates Matt, declaring that they have broken virtually every rule of law enforcement. Matt waves away her objections, still providing little information to her. Later at a transport terminal where groups of rounded up illegal aliens are awaiting, and Matt and Alejandro are asking cryptic questions of some of the prisoners, Reggie and she demand some answers. When told that they are obtaining some information useful for finding a major tunnel dug by the cartel through which they are funneling drugs into the US, the two accept the explanation.

However, as events, most of them violent, escalate, Kate cannot accept the methods of her colleagues. Alejandro turns out to be a grieving husband and father hunting the drug traffickers because of the horrible things they did to his wife and child. The drawn out scene between him and the drug lord, eating supper with his wife and two children, becomes almost unbearable to watch—as well as moving the film toward thriller turf instead of realistic drama. Though not a witness to this particular scene, Kate has seen so much violence during the attack on the tunnel that she threatens to expose to their superiors the dreadful tactics being used, supposedly in the name of justice, but in actuality subverting it. Were Jesus present, he might well have said to Matt and Alejandro, “Beware of the yeast of the drug traffickers!” The two veteran lawmen have become sicarios, killers sanctioned by a badge, but killers nonetheless.

Other films, such as Traffic, also deal with the moral ambiguity of the War on Drugs, but not in such a personal way as this one. Although Emily Blunt’s Kate would have emerged more clearly as a rounded character had we been shown more of her back story, the actress skillfully conveys a highly moral person wracked with doubts about the rightness of her cause. Equally good is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro. By his souful eyes we know he has suffered unimaginable horror and grief, so that even if he had not told Kate the story of his family, we would still know enough about him to discern his thirst for vengeance, rather than for lawful justice. After witnessing what he does to the drug lord we shudder near the end of the film when he threatens Kate with his gun, demanding that she sign a paper exhonorating their team from any wrongdoing. We wonder—can such a brutal person also be an agent of grace?

There is a substory that unfolds in short scenes interspersed troughout the film. It unfolds on the Mexican side of the border and it concerns a soccer loving young boy who loves practicing the game with his father. The latter is away at night and rises late in the morning, his cheerless wife on hand to cook him breakfast. She seldom speaks, most of the talk at home being between father and son. The father is nocomittal when the son asks him about his work. We suspect that he must be connected with the drug ring. At last we learn that he is a policeman, but…

Such films as this one could never have been made in the days of the old movie code that demanded that the guilty always be punished and the good emerge victorious. The world was seen so simply back then—a world of Good Guys and Bad Guys, White Hats and Black Hats. The makers of this film declare that people caught up in the war on Drugs are far more complex, and that therefore the outcome also is more complex than one of victory and defeat. If you come into this film believeing that the War on Drugs is a simple affair, and even winnable, you will be disturbed. Indeed, no matter what you think about this so-called War, the film will disturb you, and best of all, cause you to raise questions about it. This last is the best compliment that I can pay to the filmmakers.

This film with a set of questions is in the Oct. issue of VP.


Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min..

Our advisories: Violence 3; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.

Star rating (1-5): 3

 Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.

            Proverbs 31:8

Rayon & Ron are partners, but due to his lingering
homophobia are not always on the best of terms.
(c) Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions Feature Film

The nearly impossible is pulled off by the excellent cast and director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack—they bring us around to root for and then to like a despicable man in this story based on a real life person. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a full time electrician employed by the oil industry and a part-time rodeo clown and bull rider. Our first glimpse of him shows that he has the morals of an alley cat. He should be out in the arena ready to lure the bull away from a rider, but instead is in a dark corner humping not one, but two groupies. He drinks and takes drugs at night with his buddies and engages in sex with any woman willing to leave the bar for a one-night stand.

Then comes the wake up call at a Dallas hospital where he has been taken following an accident on the job. Two physicians, Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) break the news to him that he is HIV positive. He has thirty days to live. Going into angry denial, he curses them and storms out of the hospital. But as his physical condition worsens, he reads up on the disease and discovers that there is an unapproved drug AZT designed to treat the ailment. The doctors inform him that it is being tested, and that even if he could get into the program, there is no guarantee that he would receive the drug, half the group receiving instead a placebo. Again he angrily leaves, but soon is able to buy the pills from a friendly hospital orderly.

In the meantime he finds himself alienated from his buddies who, upon learning of his affliction, presume that he is “a faggot”—this story takes place in the mid-1980s when many thought that AIDs could be spread through handshakes. Ironically, he soon is allied with a member of the hated group, a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) whom he had rejected when the two had met at the hospital. Rayon possesses as strong a will to survive as Ron, so for convenience sake the two form an uneasy partnership, she/he introducing Ron to the Dallas gay scene.

When Ron’s drug supply from the hospital is cut off, he journeys to Mexico where shady Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) runs a clinic dispensing cocktails of drugs and nutrients said to help AIDs patients. He also travels to Amsterdam, Japan and Israel to buy the latest advances in AIDS drugs. Ron decides to cash in on the need of the Dallas gay community by traveling back and forth with cache’s of drugs, posing as a priest in order to get through customs. He soon is being dogged FDA official Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill) who would love to make Ron a guest of the federal penal system.

To get around the law, Ron and Rayon borrow an idea from gay groups in other cities, that of selling memberships in a buying club and giving away the drugs as a perk of membership. Soon there are long lines outside their office in a run-down motel. Ron continues in his old homophobic ways, and then slowly begins to change. His relationship with Rayon is a stormy one, and yet, as he is exposed to her plight and that of hundreds of other gay men and women, his hardened, prejudiced heart begins to soften. By the time Agent Barkely is close to shutting down his operation, Ron is fighting not just for his own survival, but is as concerned for that of his clients as well.

Ron also has brought over to his side Dr. Eve Saks, who to the best of her ability argues against the cruel policy of denying aid to Ron’s clientele. Ron Woodroof is about as transformed a person by the end of the film as can be found in the character transformation genre of film. And he has lived years beyond the date that Dr. Sevard had predicted he would live. Although the language and morals of the characters will be offensive to people of faith, this is a film well worth watching and discussing. I do not know if Matthew McConaughey’s dedication to his role—his extremely gaunt look was achieved by a strict diet that shed 30 or so pounds of his muscular flesh—will earn him an Oscar nod, given the dark side of the character, but he certainly deserves the Oscar buzz he is receiving. Nor do I know what the cosmic fate for Ron Woodroof will be, but I do know that in many ways he fulfilled Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.