“The Assignment” (2016): Walter Hill Takes Risks
A copy of the DVD of The Assignment (2016, dir. Walter Hill) came to me from Netflix under normal circumstances. In the indefinite past, I added it to my queue for some good reason that I could not recall when it reached the top of the list and Netflix sent it to me. As usual, I didn’t read any reviews or news stories or check any movie sites like IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes before I watched it. The only information I had was the blurb about it on the DVD jacket. This plot summary was somewhat interesting, particularly the mention of sex reassignment surgery as a primary plot element. So, into my player the DVD went.
The result was a surprise. As I noted in a short post-viewing entry in my Letterboxd diary, the film seemed to me at first to be unintentionally campy. The basic story premise is a bit crazy: a rogue plastic surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), takes revenge on a hit man, Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), for killing her brother. Kay does so by forcing him to undergo sex reassignment surgery against his will. A pastiche of stylistic elements drawn from neo-noir, action films, graphic novels and comic books, mad-scientist and body horror, and gangster films enhances this story’s over-the-top-ness.
I was only mildly surprised to learn, during my post-viewing web surfing, that the film’s premiere at the 2016 TIFF was surrounded by controversy over issues of gender and sexuality. Out of context, the theme of forced sex reassignment surgery as revenge arguably casts transsexuality in a negative light. If Frank’s ‘trans’ status is a ‘punishment,’ the implication is that there is something wrong with being a trans person. Even in the context of the film’s plot, Weaver’s plastic surgeon character is a stereotypical, castrating, phallic female, raising feminist issues in the process.
Moreover, the execution of Rodriguez’ portrayal of the pre-op Frank makes his masculinity hard to believe. While Rodriquez’ portrayal of Frank’s stereotypical underworld machismo is believable, she’s forced to wear a beard that is, of course, fake — and appears so to the audience. In a nude shot designed to convince the audience that the pre-op Frank is a cis-male, she’s swinging an enormous schlong that is clearly a dildo. All of this is shown as a flashback and narrated in hard-boiled, voice-over dialogue by Frank. It’s difficult, at least at first, to take Frank’s ‘sex change’ seriously.
Is this lack of verisimilitude a failure on the part of director Hill? Or is it intentional, a kind of parody of postmodern concerns with gender and sexuality? In certain moments, the latter option seems plausible. The post-op Frank screams “No!” as he gropes in his crotch for his missing male genitalia — providing the audience with the spectacle of Rodriguez’s full-frontal nudity in the process. Despite this change, Frank’s love interest, the feminine (and thus ironically named) Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard) is still sexually interested in him after he becomes a woman. The newly-female Frank says, “I’ll do what I can,” before they make love off-screen. Is the film saying that a lesbian (or at least the ‘butch’ stereotype) really just a man in a woman’s body and therefore ‘less than’ an anatomical male? Are ‘femmes’ like Johnnie attracted to phallic ‘masculine’ sexuality regardless of the physical sex of the person to whom they are attracted — and so are functionally bisexual? Considering these possible interpretations, it’s understandable that this film has caused controversy.
Moreover, most of these questions appear to be raised only to remain unanswered, which biases me towards an interpretation of the film as parody. This situation is due in part to the predominance of a parallel story arc, that of the ongoing confrontation and conflict between Dr. Kay and Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub). Galen is a psychiatrist who is assigned to evaluate Kay for fitness to stand trial. She’s been committed to a forensic psychiatric facility after she was found wounded by gunshot in the operating room of her illegal underground clinic. Her assistants, all murdered, are found with her. As investigators find no evidence of the existence of Frank Kitchen, her story that Frank shot her and killed her assistants seems to them to be delusional. Narrated by Dr. Kay in flashbacks prompted by Dr. Galen’s interview questions, this story arc repeatedly intersects with Frank’s. The two plot lines ultimately come together at the end in a satisfying manner.
Despite the controversy, I like the film in a guilty-pleasure sort of way because I read it as camp. Rodriguez, Weaver, and Shalhoub employ their considerable talents in over-the-top ways that support this reading. Although at first, I judged Hill’s camp to be unintentional, it seems deliberate on further reflection. Moreover, I would class it as queer camp (rather than pop camp) because of the prominence of issues of queerness, despite the lack of seriousness with which they are addressed and the considerable controversy they cause.
Post-TIFF, this controversy has died down, yet so many audience members still hate this film. The question is: Why? Based on reading user reviews on Letterboxd and IMDb, my answer is that Hill disappointed his fans’ expectations, which are likely based on the genre-specific form and macho content of directorial efforts like The Warriors (1979), 48 Hours (1982), and Johnny Handsome (1989). These expectations do not allow for a film like The Assignment, which plays with form and content and bases the latter on a controversial take on a contemporary social-political issue. Still, taking such chances is admirable when the risk-taker is a seventy-five-year-old director (and writer-producer) who can rest on his laurels at any time if he so desires.