Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Gun Hill Road is astonishingly absorbing: sensuous, hard-hitting, beautifully acted, and well written, with a bang-up closing shot. It is also one of the more perceptive depictions of teen sexual angst, parental and peer bullying, and transsexual identity to have ever hit the screen. There is no doubt that via DVD, cable, and streaming, this low-budget American indie will save many a life in the decades to come.
But please note that there is still enough testosterone on display here --fisticuffs, jail brawls, crotch kicking -- that the most macho of heterosexual males -- the type who moved out of cities where Brokeback Mountain was screening -- will not feel discomfitted. This is due to Esai Morales simply bristling with butch allure in one of his most rewarding roles.
After stabbing a fellow jailbird in various body parts in the opening scene, his pumped-up Enrique returns to his Bronx home after three years of incarceration. Once released, you'd think he'd be in a rush to see his spouse and son, but back in the old neighborhood, he gets waylaid by his old drinking and crime-loving pals. The result: Enrique misses his homecoming party. Not a good start.
But Enrique gets his due when he discovers his wife Angela (Judy Reyes) has been having an affair and his "baby boy" Michael (Harmony Santana) has given up baseball for bras. An infuriated Enrique, who now has a job slicing up vegetables to meet his parole requirements, lashes out at everyone but himself. So how long will it be before he falls back into his felonious ways? And who, if anyone, will he drag down with him?
Not Angela, who, with unease, is ready to give Enrique another chance, but Michael just might not survive. Still a virgin, he dreams of his future transwomanhood as a paradisial state where "she" will be loved wholeheartedly by one totally devoted young man. But now Michael has to settle for being called a "fag" in high school and receiving black market hormone shots. Then there's Dad. Why did he ever have to come back?
Santana, in his film debut, is a revelation in this nearly uncastable role, not unlike Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. Whether reciting Michael's poetry, getting his first kiss, being battered by dad, or felt up by a prostitute, this 20-year-old singes you with his intensity. Knowingly, Green ends Gun Hill Road with a look from Michael that is as powerful as Antoine Doinel's look back in 400 Blows. It's a breathtaking stare open to all sorts of interpretations, but more so it's a star-making take. Vulnerability has seldom been so touching. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).