After a three-year stint in prison, Enrique Rodriguez (a foreboding Esai Morales of TV’s NYPD Blue) returns to his home in the Bronx where he’s welcomed back with open arms by his loving mother Gloria (veteran character actress Miriam Colon), mixed feelings from his wife Angela (Judy Reyes of TV’s Scrubs) and complete ambivalence from his son Michael (Harmony Santana).
Enrique is a macho, hot-tempered domineering sort whose return puts his comparatively meek wife into the awkward situation of having to conceal an affair while still appearing loyal to him – even if no longer emotionally faithful. And the return angers Michael, who resents Enrique for being absent and fears his father coming into the knowledge of the fact that he’s transgendered – a fact that is not only known by Angela, but accepted.
And true to quickly-established form, Enrique is hardly as accepting of Michael as Angela is. In one scene he’s encouraging Michael to take an interest in sports but Michael is more interested in the new life he is discovering as a pre-transition woman named Vanessa. In another far more painful scene, Enrique drags Michael into the bathroom to chop the locks off an expensive wig that he wore home after a night out as Vanessa. And in a rather infuriating scene, Enrique takes Michael to a neighborhood prostitute as a form of conversion therapy (I wasn’t sure whether to be angrier with Enrique for putting Michael in that situation or with the prostitute for keeping him in that situation even if it was just business for her).
Despite Enrique’s efforts, Michael continues to go out as Vanessa, performs spoken word as Vanessa and enters into a relationship with another man as Vanessa (an interesting and underexplored subplot worthy of its own film) – all carefully out of the perilously watchful eye of Enrique. Meanwhile, Angela tries to get Enrique to come to the same level of acceptance of Michael/Vanessa that she has – albeit a lot faster than she probably had to.
Michael eventually leaves home and Angela angrily confronts Enrique demanding that he find Michael and bring him home. It is then that Enrique starts to realize he will miss out on a relationship with his son – even if that son winds up a woman.
In the canon of gay independent cinema – which is made up largely of romantic comedies and coming out stories (not that there’s anything wrong with either, but the overall canon could stand to broaden itself), Gun Hill Road stands out for being more about family than anything else. It stands out even more for being about a LATINO family. And while those of a narrower mind may feel that a film about a Latino family won’t be relatable to them and therefore not as appealing, this film’s themes of masculinity, discovery, love and finding your place are actually far more universal.
Like The Skinny that I wrote about previously with its black leads, films like Gun Hill Road with Latino leads are even more a rarity in independent gay cinema. And Gun Hill Road further sets itself apart in that one of its leads is transgendered on screen as well as in real-life. As such a comparatively rare film, there is an opportunity (if not a responsibility) for it to address certain matters and address them in ways that a more mainstream film wouldn’t or couldn’t as effectively.
Gun Hill Road does exactly that in taking on the theme of male masculinity head-on through the character of Enrique — who is walking and talking machismo. Machismo is what’s important to him so every man – especially his own son — should embody that. And he’s clearly disappointed at finding out he has a son who isn’t going to develop into such a man, so he puts up an angry front for his family and a brave front for his cronies who might poke fun at his son or even worse, poke fun at him because of his son (as if he should be held responsible for having a transgendered child).
But that disappointment manifests itself through bullheadedness rather than words. Consequently, we don’t get that cathartic hug at the end between Enrique and Michael that we always clamor for as closure to tense situations that play themselves out in stories. We do, however, get to see a reconnection of sorts between Enrique and Michael – albeit as Enrique is being taken back to jail. And though we also get to see a shift in Enrique’s character when he is forced to make a choice about the future of his relationship with Michael, he ultimately still pays for his actions that led up to him having to make that choice.
Writer/Director Rashaad Ernesto Green has crafted a wonderfully unique film and exacted great performances from his accomplished veteran cast as well as the relative newcomer in a leading role.
I hope he’s working on expanding that aforementioned subplot about Michael dating as Vanessa into a spinoff film about Michael’s life as Vanessa. It has the makings of an intriguing story and, like last year’s Tangerine, would have a transgendered actress playing a transgendered character (should Santana return to the Michael/Vanessa role).