"Gun Hill Road" Completes Its Detour to DVD Review

Within the last few years, gay culture and its acceptance within the larger American consciousness has been a major focus in independent film. So much so, in fact, that a set of clichés exists within the genre of films that deal with the sexual awakenings of gay youths and adults alike. Great films don’t necessarily avoid clichés, but they attempt to bring a new dimension to them when they have to use them, the poor films line them up like dominos and hope that they can hit each one in rapid succession. Gun Hill Road is the latter type, and goes after a story of a Latino father with traditional values returning home from prison to find out about the transsexual lifestyle his son adopted while he was away. A few decent performances keep Gun Hill Road from exploding in the director’s face, but horrendous characterization make it impossible to care about the film’s primary conflict, and the stories taking place in the margins aren’t much better.

In the three years Enrique (Esai Morales) was in prison, his wife (Judy Reyes) sought another man’s company and his son Michael (Harmony Santana) began exploring his burgeoning sexuality that has led him to pursue a transsexual identity as Vanessa. His return home doesn’t result in the fanfare he had expected, and instead comes to realize that his wife and son have no intention of reverting to life before he was sent away, and that he’s the one who has to play catch up. But Enrique’s sense of tradition and self isn’t so fluid. Despite the requirements imposed by his parole officer (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) to find a new job and stay out of trouble, Enrique chafes under the new routine of a steady job and returns to his criminal life within days. All the while he’s coming to terms with how his son has grown as a person, and it doesn’t fit within his very narrow view of gender roles. As Enrique and Michael clash over his/her choices, which involves dressing as Vanessa and dating a guy only to discover the relationship lacks much depth, the patriarch’s unyielding approach to virtually every matter puts him at odds with his family, his community, and the law.

The story certainly has merit, and the exploration of the acceptance of alternate sexualities within very traditional cultures is and will be a fascinating subject for film to explore for at least another decade. Both religion and ethnicities have a large impact on how easily a parent can accept a gay child, but where Gun Hill Road fails is by never establishing exactly where Enrique’s disapproval comes from. Is it religion? Is it his time in prison that’s left him with a homophobic outlook? The way he was raised in a very fundamental patriarchal mindset?

There are hints at all of these, but none are ever explored at any depth beyond what’s necessary to light a fuse in the household and set off one melodramatic bombshell after another. And the fuse is quite short. The script lacks any subtlety whatsoever and works far too quickly in giving Enrique’s insecurity over his son’s sexuality the green light to just run rampant across the screen. Morales is a talented actor, but his character was such a blunt instrument of force. There’s no nuance to his gripes with homosexuality. It’s just a sweeping generality of discrimination. Unfortunately, that fits all too well, as the character is so narrow and unsympathetic to begin with, that there’s no reason at all for the audience to sympathize with him. So the weight of instilling the conflict with any emotional bearing falls on the shoulders of Michael.

Michael has the opposite problem, where Enrique was too rigid and unsympathetic, the son has no real sense of self and his actions feel more motivated by a need to create points of conflict that out of the character’s desire to pursue any single goal. Yes, his relationship with another guy dressed as Vanessa would surely cause strife with his father, but the framing of the relationship is so poor that it’s hard to believe it would ever occur. Never mind that Michael has a close friend who seems eager to enter into a romantic relationship with him, but the progression would make sense more if Michael didn’t have the very obvious social support that he does. On top of that, his mother has come to terms with her son’s preferences and is just as supportive. It’s understandable that Michael seeks the affection of an attractive guy to validate his self-confidence as Vanessa, but the negativity inherently attached to the relationship from the outset and the red flags that occur in its duration make it all very hard to swallow.

Whereas Enrique was just a pointless and empty, albeit well acted, antagonistic force, Michael can’t boast a decent performance. Harmony’s delivery feels static and the emotion never hits the audience despite the fact that Michael’s experiencing rejection from one side and absolute acceptance from the other. The discrepancy and its weight on the soul should be able to trigger an emotional response from an audience if done correctly, but Harmony just ricochets empty, lifeless.

From every side the story and characterizations come under fire from logic, and it’s woefully ill-equipped to fend it off. It’s especially shameful that such a strong cast was wasted on weak characters trapped in a poorly fleshed out conflict with little new to add to the overarching conversation. Gun Hill Road makes it disturbingly hard to care about the plight of a youth just looking for acceptance of his gender, and it almost works against the very goal that all of its clichéd dialogue and conflict is aiming to reinforce.

DVD Bonus Features

An interview with Director Green is the only extra.

"Gun Hill Road" is on sale March 5, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green. Starring Esai Morales, Judy Reyes.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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