Fukunaga spent months riding those trains and researching the perilous journey, and turned that experience into the fictionalized "Sin Nombre" (in Spanish with English subtitles). It follows three Honduran immigrants on their way to the States, at times shifting focus to backstories of the Mexican gangsters who prey upon them.
We witness awful things - an attempted rape that leads to murder, assassination, grisly accidental deaths. Someone falls under the wheels of the train as it relentlessly rumbles north, and Fukunaga shows you the severed limb.
And yet the movie is lovely to look at - even the facial tattoos of the Mexican gangsters are graphically interesting. The cast (Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores) is strikingly photogenic, and Fukunaga loves the verdant Mexican countryside.
The compositions (even in grimy cities) and use of color are wonderful, the kind of thing that can only arise with the assistance of a wonderful art director.
And there's the rub, detractors say. It's too composed. Directors can photograph wealth any way they please, but it's assumed that poverty requires sackcloth, ashes and a handheld digital camera.
I think that's limiting, and points to a bigger crisis in movies: the increasingly tiresome idea that handheld shots connote realism, urgency, authenticity. TV commercials co-opted that notion years ago, and it now feels creatively bankrupt. Ask anyone who sat through "Rachel Getting Married," without Dramamine.
"Gomorrah" was suitably gritty, and spare, but did you feel any closer to the characters? And is that really the only way to do things? It may be that Fukunaga, Boyle and Meirelles want to arrive at reality by making their movies vivid, and that expressionism grows from that impulse. You may not like it, but I don't think it fits the profile of porn. *
In Spanish with English subtitles. Produced by Amy Kaufman, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, music by Marcelo Zarvos, distributed by Focus Features.