They might starve, get shot, robbed, or even fall to their death during the night. And still they come, illegal immigrants riding the freight trains from Central America through Mexico towards the US border. It all looks so punishingly real that you have to remind yourself you’re not watching a documentary but a nerve-jangling drama, one assembled with an astute eye for sweeping vistas and edgy intimacy. American-born writer-director
Cary Joji Fukunaga
actually rode the very same trains, and it’s the you-are-there recreation of that dangerous milieu which is the essential thing we take away from this promising debut – that and a reminder of the sheer beauty and richness of good ol’ 35mm celluloid in circumstances where handheld digital would have been by far an easier option.
Storywise, however, the movie feels rather too linear for its own good. Handsome, fundamentally decent young Casper (
) realises he’s in too deep with truly scary Mexican gang the Mara SalvaTrucha, and as he jumps the train north, the plot too conveniently springs an attraction to fellow traveller Sayra (
) – looking to escape the confines of her over-protective family – so both of them can flee in terror from tattooed baddie Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia, charismatically terrifying) and his gang brethren. It’s a tribute to the visceral impact of the staging that the film retains its grip despite becoming somewhat predictable, while thematically it’s the usual cycle-of-violence hand wringing. For all that, it’s still a journey you won’t forget in a hurry, and Fukunaga’s clearly a name to watch.