Movies about transgendered Latinos are not exactly on the menu every week, so the attention paid to Gun Hill Road is understandable. It’s a flawed but interesting debut by writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green, who says he based it on his own family, without further explanation. I shudder to think.
After three years in prison for grand larceny, arms possession and selling drugs, Enrique Rodriguez, played by the riveting actor Esai Morales (La Bamba), returns to his old neighborhood in the multiracial Gun Hill Road section of the Bronx to start a new life and correct his past mistakes, only to find his whole world distorted and in ashes. His long-suffering wife, Angie (Judy Reyes), has, in his absence, been having an affair with another man, and his teenage son, Michael (newcomer Harmony Santana), has been planning a sex change while living a double life as a drag queen called Vanessa. Enrique loves his family, but finds it impossible to adjust to these violent changes and simultaneously focus on his parole officer’s warning: “Secure gainful employment or go back behind bars.”
While working as a short order cook and trying to reconnect with his estranged family, he is at first baffled (his son hates baseball and paints his toenails), then enraged. Imagine the frustration and mayhem when a macho Latino sees his only son turning into the kind of freak he witnessed in prison. (There is a hint that Enrique himself has been the victim of a sexual predator in prison when, in the opening scene, he slashes the feet of a massive inmate and gets an additional 90 days in solitary.) While Angie indulges Michael and showers the confused boy with compassion, Enrique cannot rise above and beyond his conditioning in the traditional role of masculine Puerto Rican supremacy. As Enrique brutally jams his son’s head into a sink and cuts off his hair, Michael wears his bras and hot pants and makes clandestine visits to the mother of an understanding friend who sells hormone injections and testosterone blockers. In one poignant scene, Enrique forces the boy to visit a prostitute with tragic results that lead to a near-suicide.
Gun Hill Road explores the contemporary anguish of parents who want to raise their children as reflections of their own images and troubled teens who want to forge their own identities or die. Torn between the two polar opposites, Angie becomes an enabler and Enrique falls back into his old criminal ways, while Michael searches for love and acceptance in the beds of people who want only to exploit him sexually. It’s a sad story, and Mr. Green offers no easy Hollywood solutions. The writing is predictable and off the scale in terms of trajectory. The basic plot structure never follows one idea through to resolution. Still, the performances are honest and deeply felt, framed in ways that make you feel you know exactly where every character is in relation to the world around them, including the Bronx, which becomes a geographical entity with its own perimeters. The bodegas, the clubs, the dark alleys, the crowded apartments never feel like sets. Played out against these settings, the pain of the transgendered son, torn between his passion to be a woman and the demands of a macho father he both loves and fears, and the father’s struggle to make amends for his past in a real world where integrity is no longer an option add up to a heartbreaking dilemma. Cut from the same fabric as Benjamin Bratt’s role in The Mission, it certainly is not a world many viewers will find familiar, and the disappointing midair ending that heaps even more problems on these disenfranchised people might be admirably realistic, but doubly depressing.
Still, Gun Hill Road is worth seeing for the acting. The great character actress Miriam Colon makes a brief but memorable appearance as the strong matriarch of the household, and Ms. Santana, a true transgendered teen who has never acted before, is especially wrenching. As the tortured father straddling two cultures, the talented Mr. Morales’s exploration of nuance and understatement in a difficult role might have been cheapened by a more bombastic actor, but the more he underplays his inner conflicts, the more powerful his performance grows. I’ve admired him for years, and it’s a thrill to see him in a sensitive, complex role that utilizes so many aspects of his talent. Gun Hill Road may not be a great film, but there’s no questioning the fact that he is very great in it.
GUN HILL ROAD
Running time 88 minutes
Written and directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green
Starring Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Harmony Santana