The first words out of the mouth of hothead criminal Enrique (Esai Morales, of crossword puzzle fame) are a homophobic epithet. As punishment, he returns home from a prison stint to discover his teenage son Michael is gay. Whoops! Gun Hill Road may be built upon an easy irony, but it’s more than a PSA on how bigots overcome their bigotry.
First-timer Rashaad Ernesto Green does not condone Enrique’s rage, which extends to more than the gays, but he is fascinated by a man who finds himself on the outskirts of society. Not only is he among the many old school anti-gay zealots, he’s an ex-con, a minority in an impoverished Bronx neighborhood and a man whose wife (Judy Reyes) accepts him back into her bedroom not out of love but out of a reluctant sense of duty.
Gun Hill Road charts Enrique’s reluctant yet inevitable submission to changing mores, all while tracing Michael’s willingness to literally change. Announcing to friends that he’s pre-op, Michael gets injected with dodgy-looking hormones every month, and dons a bra and makeup to perform at poetry’s nights. The aggressively proud Enrique is slow—cartoonishly slow—to fully grasp the extent of Michael’s sexual leanings, and his belated realization prompts some camp hysterics. (“Not my boy!,” Enrique shouts, wide-eyed.)
Despite the occasional hambone dialogue, the film stands as the latest in a trend where unsubtle scripts are matched with subtle direction and acting. It’s always obvious where Gun Hill Road is heading, but it still vividly captures, among other things, a neighborhood in flux. And though the film doesn’t always know what to do with Enrique, it fares better with Michael, slowing the pace down to a crawl as he has his first, doomed relationship. These represent moments of verisimilitude in a film that otherwise feels too manufactured.