Gun Hill Road was in the selection for last year’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. It was screened at the Revue Cinema in Toronto last Sunday night as a preview of the diverse, complex and cinematic perspectives to come in this year’s program.
Gun Hill Road is overcast, beginning by showing the last days of a long prison term of a man named Enrique (Esai Morales). When he’s eventually released to his home and family in the Bronx, the movie lets us hear the music and see the people in the neighbourhood. There’s no contrast, cinematographically, between those moments in jail and those portraying the outside. There are some moments when the camera feels claustrophobic, panning between characters during conversations. All of these elements effectively provide a tone of unhappiness that these characters feel.
At its worst, the movie is populated with the usual characters that come with queer youth cinema. There’s Enrique as the hyper-masculine father as well as the parental figure holding onto the conservative, rigid opinions about sexuality. Sharing protagonist duties with Enrique is Michael (Harmony Santana). To blow off steam, Michael skips school with his few friends and when the night comes, he recites bad poetry at all-ages bars under the name of ‘Vanessa.’ The household’s wife and mother Angela (Judy Reyes) is the person in between, sometimes sacrificing herself to negotiate between the strong men around her.
This movie adds elements to their archetypal characters to make them more specific. Enrique keeps hanging out with the same crowd, bearing the image of a forty year-old pistol-toting gangster. Angela has silent justifications for her affairs with Enrique’s enemies, and it becomes less clear whether the strife between the men causes her infidelities or vice versa. Michael visits an apartment of an older transvestite who gives him hormones and injections, these scenes depicted with brutal and claustrophobic honesty. These decisions portray an unconventional morality. And as much as it allows us to criticize either the ‘what’s or the ‘how’s of these people’s actions, this moral ambiguity on all sides and characters lets us sympathize with or normalize what they think is right.
Rashaad Ernesto Green, helmer and writer of Gun Hill Road, doesn’t just show these conflicts as having sides, but instead portrays them as part of a spectrum. Enrique’s generation – like his wife and best friend – don’t have the same narrow mentality on queerness as he does, and neither do all Michael’s peers accept him for who he is. The movie also allows Michael different ways of release and escape which are important in expressing that not all gay Hispanic youth or gay youth of colour are alone. And that’s why I relate to Michael’s side of the story more, by watching him transform and hinting at his potential.
He also approaches his movie in an impressionistic manner. It’s as if we’re catching his characters mid-conversation, attacking the issues around them differently despite them being the same issues we see in other ‘coming out’ movies. Enrique embodies this raw anger despite his restraint, living in a world that has violently changed around him. Despite this movie’s structure and archetypes being too apparent, it’s the method in executing the story that elevates it.