“(Re) Assignment” is the transphobic mess we expected

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You know, as a film reviewer, critic, or whatever you want to call me, I have to go into a movie leaving behind any preconceived notions I may have. For two years in a row now, the Toronto International Film Festival has made that incredibly difficult for me, with screenings of Stonewall last year and with this year’s world premiere of (Re) Assignment. Let’s face it: we all knew those films were going to be hot messes. And as was the case for Stonewall, (Re) Assignment did not prove us wrong.

So why even cover this film? A few reasons actually. For one, I believe if a film is transphobic, misogynistic and even racist, we need to have that on record. Two, the film stars lesbian favorite Sigourney Weaver and the often problematic bisexual actress Michelle “Michi Likes Sausage” Rodriguez, who really should’ve known better than to sign on to this role. And finally, there is what you can interpret as a lesbian relationship in the film, although that too has some serious issues.

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Where do I even begin? I guess the start, where we hear Michelle’s gruff voice, so we’re supposed to know she’s a guy. Quickly we’re introduced to some graphic novel elements, which we’ll see many times over in the film. It’s worth noting that director Walter Hill’s work was considered iconic in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but while (Re) Assignment attempts to be modern and look Frank Miller-esque, it really doesn’t get close.

Anyway, back to the movie. Sigourney’s character, Dr. Rachel Jane, is locked up, wearing a straitjacket and being interrogated by a Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub). I’m actually going to call her Rachel because she’s had her title taken away for not following the code of medical ethics. Aloof and condescending, Rachel and her love of quoting the literary greats are actually the best thing this film has going for it.

So why is she locked up? She’s accused of being responsible for numerous murders but has been determined as being too mentally unfit to stand trial. Did she commit the murders? “No,” she says, but a Frank Kitchen did. The problem? The authorities insist Frank Kitchen doesn’t exist.

Introducing Frank Kitchen, a manly cis male played by Michelle Rodriguez, prosthetic beard, nose and all. Well, I’m guessing all, but I’m not actually sure what kind of movie magic happened to give Michelle a flat, hairy chest and a swinging penis that we see post-shower.

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And let me be clear: Michelle doesn’t play a trans man, which would’ve been bad enough. Like I said, Frank Kitchen is a macho man. This is evidenced by all his guns (real and metaphoric) and his ripping of a condom packet to fuck a woman he’s just met at a San Francisco diner.

But Frank Kitchen has made the wrong enemy. After killing Rachel’s brother Sebastian (Adrian Hough) as part of a hit job, he becomes her next target.

You see, Rachel had become very interested in “gender change operations” and, according to her, genuinely curious about matters of gender and identity. So much so that she hired goons to kidnap homeless people so she could operate on them. By the way, she sees nothing wrong with that. As she tells Frank in a recording, “I’ve liberated you from the macho prison you’ve been living in.”

It’s so wrong, but Frank’s reaction after waking up and noticing how perfectly healed he is (which, really?) just screams misogyny. Getting a look at his clean face, new breasts and lack of a penis, he screams bloody murder. It’s so over-the-top that you would think being a woman is the worst imaginable thought possible to a cis male, which really for many it is. Now I’m not saying an emotional reaction isn’t appropriate here, but where’s the sadness? Why is it only smashing things and yelling out an overly dramatic “Noooooo!”? Obviously I’m asking too much from this film.

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The next step, of course, is revenge. With hormone pills and money provided by Rachel in hand, plus some work “savings,” Frank calls up that previously mentioned fling, Nurse Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard). And, no, despite the name, Johnnie is not another one of Rachel’s unwilling patients, although I was worried there for a bit.

When Johnnie sees him, she’s surprised, but doesn’t ask too many questions, which is good because he’s not being very forthcoming about the whole thing. Yet when he asks if he can stay with her, she says sure because “We’re friends. Fuck buddies.”

And, it turns out, that doesn’t change. After starting off slow because he’s getting used to his new body but mostly because he’s been running around killing people with any connection to what happened to him, he and Johnnie do become intimate again. “I’ll do what I can,” he says. “You’ll do fine,” she responds. We don’t actually see a sex scene between them, though.

Sex, unsurprisingly, proves to not be a solution. Soon after we see Frank visiting with a doctor and asking if he can reverse what happened and, if not, can he at least get off this way? To the latter, the doctor informs him that it’ll take some months to get to that point. But  as for the first bit? No reversal procedure would work beyond the cosmetic. It’s an odd scene that I wouldn’t advise any pre-op trans person to see, because no one should have to hear a doctor ask, “How long have you been living as a transsexual?”

There are indeed a lot of offensive and lazy moments in this film, like the threat of rape and racist Hispanic, Asian, Russian and Italian stereotypes. Ugh, and listening to Michelle deliver Frank Kitchen dialogue is just excruciating.

And then just when I thought Johnnie might be the silver lining, it turns out she’s been stealing drugs and keeping an eye on Frank for the doctor the whole time. Well I should’ve guessed, because as thug Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) says, “Nurses work for doctors.” The more than likely bisexual character is a lying manipulator. Great…

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So then what next? Frank’s killed so many people, but is he going to kill Johnnie? And how exactly did he get the doctor locked up, and is he really running around free? Could the doctor be freed?

I doubt at this point it’s even worth it to be curious about these answers. Quite honestly, (Re) Assignment is a film that never should’ve been made. And yet, here we are. Yes, not even Sigourney Weaver in a suit and tie can save this film. Frankly, Michelle Rodriguez didn’t even try to.

(Re) Assignment plays at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 14, 16 and 17.

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