WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Casper (Edgar Flores) is still a teenager, but he’s already devoted his life to a brutal gang in the underworld of southern Mexico. He’s a respected lieutenant in the Mara gang, totally loyal to the tattooed gang boss, Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia).
Barely a teenager, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) is hazed into the gang by showing that he has the guts to kill a member of a rival gang in cold blood.
But he doesn’t, so Casper covers for him, but Lil’ Mago finds out and Casper is punished.
He’s prepared to take the punishment – but he’s not prepared for the violence that’s meted out on his girlfriend when she happens to stumble across his beating.
Lil’ Mago gives Casper and Smiley an opportunity to regain his trust by accompanying him on a mission.
Meanwhile, in a slum down in Honduras, teenaged Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is planning to make it to the United States with her father and uncle. The commonly used form of transport for such illegal immigrants is the roof of a goods train through Mexico.
Knowing that the trains provide transport for hundreds of immigrants, carrying everything they own, Lil’ Mago takes Casper, Smiley and some weapons to ride the train and steal as much as they can from their unwitting fellow passengers.
But things don’t go to plan. Lil’ Mago falls from the train and Smiley runs back to base.
Casper is befriended by the warm-hearted – if naïve – Sayra – and sticks out the journey, knowing that every stop, gang members could be waiting for him to avenge the death of the boss.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Cary Fukunaga’s highly accomplished debut feature works well on several levels.
As well as being a fascinating insight into the gangster life-style and a socio-realistic study of the desperation of the poor, in their futile pursuit of the American dream, it’s also a gripping thriller about betrayal and revenge.
There’s a very clear definition between the characters who have turned to the gangs because they don’t have anything or anyone else and the ruthless leaders who use violence and fear to build their status in the community.
One defining point seems to be the overacting of the tattooed and shaven-headed thugs and the underplayed performances of the desperate people whose lives are wrecked by their actions.
The violence is brutal, shocking and raw.
The locations are a satisfying mixture of claustrophobic railway carriages and pokey flats with the agoraphobia of the endless countryside that separates the hapless characters from their destination.
Shooting much of the film on the roof of a moving train is no mean feat for a low budget feature.
And making the film in Spanish, aiming for the arthouse market, Fukunaga is able to give it an honest ending that leaves you feeling the pain of the immigrants as all hope drains from their veins, with a sense that you make your own luck, but you can’t fight fate.