by Tony Dayoub
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Gun Hill Road is a drama set in the Bronx's Puerto Rican community. It stars Esai Morales (La Bamba) as Enrique "Quique" Rodriguez, a recently released parolee finding difficulty reassimilating into life outside prison. His wife Angie (Judy Reyes) has mixed feelings about his return and is tentative in her one-on-one dealings with him. And Quique's friends on the street, still in the thick of criminal activities, represent an easy emotional refuge from his haunting experience in jail, an emasculation personified in the form of his gay son, Michael (Harmony Santana).
Quique, unable to fulfill Angie in bed since his release, is insecure about his manhood, a reaction to a jailhouse sexual assault. For the proud Quique, Michael, a pre-operative transsexual, is a constant reminder of his shortcomings as both a father and as a man. Director Rashaad Ernesto Green is able to convey Quique's inner turmoil by harnessing the silent intensity that is Morales's forte. For his part, Morales complicates what could have been a stereotypical Latino convict—with all of the macho cultural signifiers that come along with such a role—by finding room to express a small measure of tenderness for Michael, and understanding for Angie, who sought solace in the arms of another man (Vincent Laresca) while Quique was in prison.
As Michael, newcomer Santana elicits empathy from the viewer, exhibiting the confidence of someone who has finally found their identity while still displaying the vulnerability of an adolescent who feels alienated from both his peers and his culture. Michael, eager to acquire the money necessary to complete his physical transformation, is caught between self-actualization and reconnecting with a father who's been absent from much of his upbringing. Reyes (best known to audiences as Carla from the sitcom Scrubs) gets a rare chance to show off her dramatic chops as a woman caught between a son she supports for finding his way and a husband she loves despite having lost his.
No, Gun Hill Road isn't the most original story. Though it tries sewing up some disparate cliched plotlines to form one unique film its seams show. But Green's superb direction of the fine ensemble at his disposal, plus the movie's eye for the smaller details of boricua culture lend Gun Hill Road some authenticity, elevating it above the conventional Sundance indie.
Gun Hill Road is in limited release and opens Friday, October 21st, at United Artists' Tara Cinemas 4, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E., Atlanta, GA 30324, (404) 634-5661