There is no shortage of narrative films that use location shooting as a way of importing some vague notion of authenticity to their stories, but how many of these movies actually engage with their setting in a meaningful way? Certainly not Gun Hill Road, which, give or take a street exterior of men hanging outside a bodega or a pretty shot of two subway trains passing in the night, might as well have been shot on a Hollywood soundstage rather than the Bronx neighborhood clustered around the eponymous thoroughfare.
This questing after realism translates equally to the film’s camera setups (the conspicuously ugly, frequently jerky framings and reliance on available light) and gritty subject matter. Opening with a vicious attack carried out on a jailhouse rival by soon-to-be-released Enrique Rodriguez (Esai Morales), the film cuts to the no less heated drama of this now ex-con readjusting to family life in the Bronx, his anger and incomprehension fueled by his detection of his wife’s infidelity and his son’s status as a (pre-op) transsexual.
Of the film’s three principals, it’s only teenage Michael (more than ably embodied by screen newcomer Harmony Santana) that writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green seems to have much of a feel for. When the filmmaker keeps his camera trained on this kid, the film brims over with interest and insight. When it’s not, it’s utterly pedestrian. Much of the problem has to do with the characterization of Enrique, a man whose notions of masculinity are so ingrained that he not only is totally incapable of understanding his son (a perfectly valid dramatic situation), but he’s forced—by Green—to expresses this sense of machismo in the most shopworn terms (repeated attempts to bond with his son over baseball, the inevitable forced trip to a prostitute to turn his son into a “man”). Although there’s clearly a complicating layer of love for the boy underlying his rage, Enrique emerges as an angry man shouting in the wilderness, improbably taking to the violent satisfaction of petty street vendettas—despite his tenuous parole situation—to assuage his feelings of undermined masculinity.
His wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), isn’t granted even that much depth. Her story almost completely marginalized, her character only comes to life when she shares a tender moment with her son, whose ambiguous gender proves not the slightest problem for this loving mother. Fortunately, Green devotes more screen time to Michael than his parents. Whether observing him goofing off with his friends as they laugh at pictures of vaginas in a book, dressing himself up as his female self, Vanessa, in nearly real time, or tentatively engaging in a sexual encounter with an aggressive boyfriend while negotiating a sensitivity about his transitional body, the director evinces a keen understanding of the young man that couldn’t feel more alien from the by-the-numbers handling of Enrique’s my-son-is-transgendered-and-I-can’t-deal-with-it agonizing.