Gun Hill Road (2011)
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Obtaining brilliant, genuine performances from the entire cast throughout this well-layered plot, Rashaad Ernesto Green has clearly distinguished himself as an important new director to watch. What most distinctively succeeds in Green's full-length feature debut is the way one can connect emotionally with virtually EVERY character in this film. Esai Morales, Judy Reyes and newcomer Harmony Santana deliver profoundly multi-dimensional portrayals.
The ultimate proof of a sophisticated director resides in their ability to transport you into settings about which you may know little, but somehow enables you to raise challenging questions and emerge with new insights. Gun Hill Road is truly a breakthrough film from an exceptional director.
"Gun Hill Road" is an important first feature offering. It is not for the emotionally faint of heart. On the other hand, vulnerability and tenderness abound in every aching moment.
The performances are powerful and right on target. The filmmaking itself is nothing short of premium in every area. Shot under a modest budget, this film brings the craft to new heights. This movie does not back down. It's in your face. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you cheer that such truth on the screen is, after all, possible.
Director and writer Rashaad Ernesto Green creates a screenplay that steers away from clichés and stereotypes, instead constructing and vivifying characters with layered complexity. The experiences of the characters with incarceration,transgenderism, masculinity, fatherhood, and infidelity are not treated as one-dimensional, but in nuanced relationship with each other. Enrique's time in jail haunts him even after he gets out, which manifests in both his challenge to again consummate his marriage and the unconventional means he employs to "bring his son around." Michael is a teenager struggling to balance his self esteem and self assuredness. He accepts who he is, and wants others to do the same. His struggles for acceptance are detailed through poetic pleas for recognition during open mics, the give and take of one-sided relationships, the guardedness of the fraternity of his community, and the mirror he is both trying to find and resist within his father. Angela's sacrificial fidelity to institutions and relatives are juxtaposed by her love interest in Enrique's absence, being sole provider within an economic and familial gap, and the unconditional promotion and protection of their son. Green skillfully avoids insulting the audience by telling a story already told. The film instead invites us into an authentic witnessing of the contemplation and work of three family members trying to gravitate toward individual and familial wholeness. Brutal truths are relayed with unflinching transparency.
Green's choice of storytelling in his first full feature film, complemented by its cinematography earns him kudos. His courageous storytelling is such that other filmmakers may be too reluctant to discuss. Gun Hill Road was a finalist for the Jury Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival. Melding one part memoir, one part journalism, one part documentary, with one part novel, Green bends and blends genres to create a fictitious masterpiece. He skillfully mimics the gritty eloquent narration of "The Wire," the journalistic feel of "Law and Order," the familial realism of PBS's "An American Family" with the unapologetic and blatantly beautiful truth telling of Lee Daniel's "Precious." Careful not to typecast, Green's cinematic truism lies in his inventive work in sequencing the story so that it flows like a trilogy of three distinct narratives, yet harmonizes them to illustrate the portrait of a family. In this novel movie, the Bronx is its own complex character, captured and depicted well by Gun Hill Road's alleys and corners for marking identity and reclaiming one's self, its' congestion of buildings, the parks where people make and break relationships, serving as an oxymoronic mattress of rest, and even its brilliance in sunrise and twilight I fondly remember witnessing when growing up there in the 70s and 80s.
The cast transcended acting well. They brought to life characters so convincing they reminded me of the people I pass on my way to work in schools in the Bronx. Veteran Judy Reyes and breakout actor Harmony Santana do hard work to convey with balance and integrity the vulnerable and resilient spirits of their characters without indulging caricature and stereotype. The supporting cast complements their work, from the beatdowns to the buildups of the lead characters, with realism. A special "shout out" has to go to Esai Morales, who as the main character and supporter of Green got behind the potential of this movie, and as an inexhaustible dynamo brought it to fruition. A veteran actor who has garnered acclaim for working in several movies and television shows, and recognition as a self-defined "actorvist," his talent is given full bloom and due justice in this film. An actor who surgically brings out the grit and grim of Enrique, yet portrays his vulnerability and frustration with equal precision, Morales's performance should receive the highest acclaim during award season.
Gun Hill Road is a must see movie. As an audience member, I found myself intrigued and engrossed within minutes. The movie unapologetically and unhesitatingly thrusts you into a world of mistakes, misguided intentions, and devotion. Viewing this movie is an unflinching experience where Green, Morales, the cast, and The Bronx make you privy to the joys and pains of life. It is a rare film that provides you intimate access to the inner workings of relationships: those recoiled and renegotiated between family members, those individuals reconcile within themselves, and those carefully (and at times carelessly) brokered and navigated with the world. The familial and personal skirmishes are not oversimplified. They illustrate the workings of humans and spirits trying to come back to center. The movie is one of contrasts, relentless in its confrontation of bitter hard truths and the beauty of life, while relaying both reverently and tastefully.
Spoiler alert: the movie does not dishonor or disrespect the audience with a conventional Hollywood story or ending. It shows homage to life on an urban landscape, and delivers as such.
Gun Hill Road is currently in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. We need to seem more films like this, with minority filmmakers who know how to tell their own stories.
Michael (who also calls herself Vanessa) is played by Harmony Santana, who had no prior acting experience before making this film. The central conflict revolves around Enrique and Michael's relationship. In a Q&A I attended, Director Green indicated that in part, he wrote the film to perhaps make an impression on those who have no tolerance for those who embrace alternative lifestyles. Enrique is depicted as a hardened soul, who had to fend off sexual advances while in prison from other inmates and now is ashamed that his son so easily rejects his own heterosexuality. Green wisely depicts Enrique's rejection of Michael's lifestyle as more psychological than physical. In a powerful scene, Enrique cuts off long locks of Michael's hair after finding sexually suggestive photos of him inside the home.
Another excellent scene which depicts the psychological harm Enrique inflicts on Michael is when he takes him to see a prostitute. The experience leaves Michael deeply wounded, as he ends up in the shower sobbing, while simultaneously cleaning himself off from his contact with the prostitute (contact which repulses him). Michael's only real support is from his mother, Angela, played by Judy Reyes, who does an excellent job as a woman torn between her love for tough guy husband Enrique and an auto mechanic boyfriend she was seeing while Enrique was in prison. In fact, it's the boyfriend's apartment that Michael runs off to for a brief time, after he can no longer tolerate his father's abuse.
Green doesn't sugar coat Michael's character either. Not only does Michael have to contend with his father's lack of acceptance, but finds that a new 'boyfriend' is only using her for sex. After sharing intimate moments (which includes an anal sex scene which Michael does not enjoy), she finally convinces the boyfriend to take her out to dinner (so that the two can now enjoy a more normal relationship). The boyfriend acts completely uncomfortable at dinner with Michael and doesn't stick up for her when she's taunted by neighborhood thugs on the street. Michael also resorts to self-defeating behavior by undergoing dangerous silicon injections at the hands of an underground, unlicensed practitioner.
In addition to the escalating tension as Enrique becomes more enraged over his son's sexuality, there are a number of subplots that add to the texture of the overall narrative. These subplots mainly involve Enrique's descent back into criminality: his loss of a job, participation in a robbery, failure to meet with his parole officer and a violent assault on the inmate who he had a confrontation with, back when he was incarcerated.
'Gun Hill Road' suffers only from a plot that primarily focuses on a father's one-note obsession. With other directors, this might have become an unwelcome, drawn out affair. But Director Green does an excellent job of bringing out all the nuances of his tragic, misguided protagonist with the help of the veteran, seasoned actor, Esai Morales.
'Gun Hill Road' feels like it was directed by someone with quite a good deal of experience in the film world. But the reality is, this is Director Rashaad Ernesto Green's first feature. Not only is he adept with the technical aspects of film making, but also knows how to work with his actors. I am convinced that Mr. Green will eventually become a top notch director in the American film industry.
Judy Reyes stellar performance, Esai Morales groundbreaking, Harmony Santana breakout star. The supporting cast simply amazing as well. Spectacular film. In the tradition of I like it like that, Girlfight and Gwen Arajo.
True, real and no pretty ending as is life. There is still much work to be done with issues revolving around family and differences. This was a good dialogue about a story which exists in our culture and is not often spoken about. I hope this film leads to more visibility for families who are in similar situations. With love anything is possible and I think that was the message in this story.
Rashaad Ernesto Green did a wonderful job setting the tone of the world that both father and son, played by Esai Morales and Harmony Santana respectfully, travel and letting us the viewer follow both of them down their roads.
Gun Hill Road is such an amazing movie that if you get a chance to see it, GO! You will not be wasting your time on such an amazing story about family, redemption and being accepted.
The film balances comedy, pain, love and tears remarkably well and strips away the veil of a somewhat uncomfortable story. I particularly enjoyed Esai Morales. Throughout the film I felt he could explode at any moment and he was masterful at both containing it and revealing that nature.
Gun Hill Road will shatter your misperceptions, make you think, cause laughter, evoke remembrance, break your heart, mend it sideways, and leave you sighing. Bravo Rashaad, Bravo!
Harmony Santana as Vanessa did a magnificent job promoting the fact that you should never be afraid of the person you want to be.
Although it can be a struggle, remaining true to yourself is all the reward one needs.
I felt privileged to see a screening in March, and cannot wait to see how this film does in Theaters.
I congratulate everyone who had a part in the successful creation of Gun Hill road, and I hope this is not the last we've seen of Harmony Santana!
Sure other people have a different opinion but we watched this as a group of 6 and all felt the same. To sum it up, on a plus i personally thought the acting was pretty good by individual actors the direction was average and the script needed that little bit more.
BTW...there are already people asking about purchasing this film on DVD. Keep us posted on!