Daily | Toronto 2016 | Walter Hill’s (RE)ASSIGNMENT

“A potential powder keg of (trans)gender politics provided anybody ever actually sees it after its TIFF premiere,” begins Adam Nayman at CinemaScope, “Walter Hill’s (Re)Assignment is sort of two movies in one: a low-rent, bullet-in-the-head revenge thriller that embraces clichés like long-lost friends, and an incongruously high-minded disquisition on a style that cribs from Shakespeare and Poe en route to the conclusion that politics and morality have no place in a work of art…. Those sympathetic to the idea that fiascos gently age into masterpieces may return this one after a safe interval has passed—or not.”

Noting that the film was denounced “as an offensive trivialization of trans reassignment surgery by GLAAD as soon its premise was announced,” Filmmaker‘s Vadim Rizov elaborates, suggesting that “Re(Assignment) makes the subtextual defense for itself early on. Institutionalized for two years, surgeon Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver)—a formerly respected practitioner stripped of her license—is being questioned by a shrink (Tony Shalhoub) as to why four corpses were found in her illicit medical office. Kay was performing gender reassignment surgery on the willing and unwilling, but she wasn’t just a doctor, she insists; she was also an artist, and… declares that proper art is indifferent to moral considerations. And so should this movie be, right? Except Re(Assignment) isn’t art, it’s trash. That’s, of course, a distinction that doesn’t actually exist, but Re(Assignment) is a proudly pulpy joke made for an audience of one, its director.”

For Tina Hassannia, dispatching to Movie Mezzanine, Re(Assignment) is “deliciously cheesy, pulpy, and trashy in all the right ways. It has a very silly premise: After Frank [Michelle Rodriguez] kills Dr. Kay’s brother (on assignment—pun intended, of course), the doctor tracks him down through a mob boss (played by Anthony LaPaglia) to exact her revenge, and Frank goes from being a swarthy, macho hitman to, well, a woman. Frank quickly adjusts to his new body (not too quickly as to undermine the seriousness of the surgery and its effects on Frank’s identity), and it isn’t long before he’s seeking out revenge of his own…. The schlock is there to be ridiculed, not taken seriously.”

But for Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan, “it may be 2016’s biggest what-were-they-thinking fiasco, and when it comes to trans issues, this throwback movie is about as woke as a coma.” Aesthetically, too, it’s “a mess that mixes way too many framing devices, shoots random scenes in black and white and forgets to subtitle others, and relentlessly time-stamps every moment as though it’s crucial to know that a barely glimpsed scene of Frank committing his umpteenth murder happened at 4:19 p.m.” Also, “Sigourney, why?”

“The whole notion belongs to an earlier era and its ideas about identity, and the stuff that doesn’t feel stale feels pizza pants insane, like a film noir adaptation of an EC comic so outrageous even Bill Gaines wouldn’t have published it,” adds Matt Singer at ScreenCrush.

Michelle Rodriguez in '(Re)Assignment' courtesy of the Toronto International Film FestivalMichelle Rodriguez in ‘(Re)Assignment’ courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

“When films are not just bad but incompetent, incoherent and incomprehensible, you start to wonder whether an actual human being was in charge or if a group of monkeys was given free rein on a soundstage for a month and this is what they produced,” rages Benjamin Lee in the Guardian. Re(Assignment) is “a film made with such staggering idiocy that it deserves to be studied by future generations for just how and why it ever got made.”

“Writer/director Hill, the poet laureate of the 70s and 80s machismo movies (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 HRS., Red Heat), hasn’t made a feature worth paying attention to for a while,” writes Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey, “and this one sadly does not break the streak. The dialogue is stilted (especially Weaver’s), it’s got about twice as many framing devices as it needs, and its use of comic book transitions reeks of desperation for pop relevance…. What a waste. What a mess.”

Back on the other hand, Ioncinema‘s Nicholas Bell finds the film “simultaneously shameless, trashy and generously entertaining… Those concerned with a cisgender woman portraying a reluctant trans woman (the same audience members, who, by default, must also believe LGBT performers can only portray LGBT characters defined by their representative letter) should note Hill isn’t the first director to formulate a revenge plot around forced sex reassignment, recently explored in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011), and with greater complexity by Rainer Werner Fassbinder back in 1978 with In a Year with 13 Moons. Rather, this plot device would seem to belong to a particular subgenre of body horror. But Hill and screenwriter Denis Hamill amp up the camp of both those auteurs with this treatment, which also resembles a plot point of Hill’s underrated 1989 neo noir Johnny Handsome.”

More from Dennis Harvey (Variety), Wendy Ide (Screen), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist, D-), Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), and Ethan Vestby (Film Stage, B).

Update: “As blunt as the gender discourse of (Re)Assignment may be,” writes Michael J. Anderson, “Hill’s film proves overwhelmingly of our moment, in much the same manner that Hard Times (1975) captured the depressed spirit of the mid-1970s; that The Warriors (1979) and later Trespass (1992) highlighted the urban decay of their period; and Streets of Fire (1984) tapped into apocalyptic sentiment and 1950’s nostalgia of the middle Reagan years. For this reason alone, not to mention for the manic outrageous stylization (evident in every frame) that Hill’s film self-reflexively claims as its ultimate justification, there is a far more interesting argument to be made in favor of (Re)Assignment than there is a case against it.”

Updates, 9/14: “Walter Hill’s lurid fever-dream unfolds like a lost Hong Kong thriller from the 80s,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “As soon as Michelle Rodriguez turns up in male drag playing a male killer named Frank Kitchen, her Brando brow hanging over a beard that makes her look unaccountably like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it’s clear that the film has more on its mind than simply reinforcing the ‘macho prison,’ as someone puts it, of the standard revenge bullet fest…. Its gender ideologies are those of what in the 70s used to be called an ‘incoherent text,’ but its slicing of pulp masculinity is dense and sneaky.”

More from Eric Kohn (Indiewire, D+) and Nathaniel Rogers.

Update, 9/15:(Re)Assignment is a neo-exploitation flick that approaches gender politics the way someone trying to knock themselves unconscious might run into a wall,” writes Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore. “Hill and his co-writer Denis Hamill came up with the idea for (Re)Assignment in the 70s, but are tossing it into a very different cultural moment like a brick through a window, using a gender transition as an assaultive act of revenge and as an experiment in essentialism involving changing someone’s nature from the outside. Or so Hill must hope. (Re)Assignment’s plot doesn’t escalate anywhere in particular, and it’s too clunky to be any kind of real provocation.”

Updates, 9/18: “Great artists dare to offend, or at least risk offense,” writes Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door, “and there’s no doubt that (Re)Assignment will gall many viewers—the trans community, especially—because of its rocky surface and its scandalizing central conceit. But not all exploitation films are necessarily exploitative. If anything, the brazen outrageousness of such works has the potential to bring us closer to essential human truths, or at least force us to grapple with the contradictions of living in an ever-shifting world. The contextual burden is on Hill, and there’s enough specificity—of emotion, of tone, of perspective—in (Re)Assignment to suggest he’s in no way making some broad, insensitive statement about a group of people, so much as he’s illuminating a single character’s crisis of faith, and the radical revelation that results.”

On the other hand, Sam Adams for the BBC: “For the work of a 74-year-old veteran director, the movie feels dispiritingly juvenile, more like the fantasy of a frightened boy than a film-making great. It’s hard to know whether we should hope Hill makes another film so that (Re)Assignment isn’t his last or that he quits before he tarnishes his legacy further.”

“Regardless of whether you find this Skinemax-on-psilocybin potboiler good, bad or straight-up ugly,” writes David Fear, introducing an interview for Rolling Stone, “you can tell it’s a Walter Hill film, down to its pulpy-as-hell dialogue and inside-out take on crime-cinema conventions. Talking about the movie a few hours before its first public screening, he was keen to explain why he doesn’t feel the movie is insensitive to the LGBTQ community; Hill was also happy to talk about why he thinks The Warriors is still so beloved, why you sometimes have to wait for a hated movie to find its audience and why he never did another episode of Deadwood.”

The 2016 fall film festival indexes: Venice, Telluride, and Toronto.

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