In the opening minutes of Mariachi Gringo, director Tom Gustafson needs to show that Kansas is too desolate and oppressive a place for the brooding but golden-throated Ed (Shawn Ashmore), so he makes the blue skies harsh and depthless like wallpaper and the family dinners full of knife-scraping and forced jokes about the meatloaf. That way, a scene later, he can get Ed escaping to Guadalajara where the young man pursues his newfound dream of joining a mariachi band. It didn't take much for the depressive to alight on this particular goal; all he had to do was eat in his favorite Mexican restaurant and wait for the local mariachi Alberto (Fernando Becerril) to read his mind. "Mariachi is the soundtrack to life in Mexico," Alberto tells Ed during one of the pair's subsequent tutorials, where Ed, in meeting Alberto's family, discovers that Mexican culture is simpler, warmer, and more exciting than his own. His arrival in Guadalajara does little to complicate that reductive notion, as locals like Lilia (Martha Higareda) are just as eager to help him pursue his dream as Alberto was. Higareda is immensely likable in the thankless role of a supportive girlfriend whose one non-stereotypical quality is her possible bisexuality. Amid this malarkey Gustafson is smart enough to let the camera linger on musical performances that reveal mariachi to be dynamic and complex as opera. Lila Downs, singing a veritable aria just before the show’s closing moments, seems to burst out of the film's frame.
Tom GustafsonShawn Ashmore, Martha Higareda, Kate Burton, Adriana Barraza, Fernando Becerril, Lila Downs, Tom Wopat, Yareli Arizmendi, Deanna Dunagan, Teresa RuizCory James KrueckebergIndependent Pictures