The plot of Walter Hill’s new neo-noir crime thriller The Assignment is as straightforward as it is insanely transphobic.
After hired hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) kills the brother of mad plastic surgeon Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), Kay enacts her revenge on Kitchen by forcibly performing sexual reassignment surgery and turning him into a woman. Kitchen, similarly driven to madness by his newfound body dysmorphia, sets out on payback mission to murder everyone involved in his unwanted transformation.
How this movie got made in 2016 (and released on video on demand today) is a fucking mystery.
If the ideas at work in this movie sound retrograde beyond belief (they are), it’s because co-writer Denis Hamil penned the first draft of the script way back in 1978 before eventually being caught up in multiple levels of development hell that involved rewrites, shelving, and being turned into a French graphic novel. In Hamil’s original version of this story, Frank, then simply referred to as the Tom Boy, is a teenager who rapes the wife of the surgeon who eventually changes his body.
As problematic and frankly terrible a premise as Hamil’s early story is, it is in many ways a reflection of its time when public perceptions about transpeople and popular understanding about trans-identities were very limited. The Assignment, on the other hand, comes at a time when trans-visibility in pop culture is at an all-time high and people more accurately understand the importance of nuanced, thoughtful depictions of transgender characters.
To call The Assignment a movie about a transgender person is to understand what the movie is fundamentally about: a cisgender man. Specifically, Frank Kitchen is a cisman who is physically violated by a villain who is characterized as a champion for transgender people.
In what could be considered the “origin scene” of the film, Frank awakes from a drug-induced coma in a filthy motel room, wrapped in dirty bandages, unsure of why his body feels so strange. Next to him, he finds a digital audio recorder and two unmarked pill bottles.
“People pay small fortunes for work that’s less good than what’s been done to you,” Dr. Kay’s voice intones after Kitchen presses play on the recorder. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to sustain your new femininity with hormones.”
In horror, Kitchen begins to clutch at his new body while staring into a mirror and begins to scream when he realizes that his penis (which is prominently featured in the first 10 minutes of the movie) has now been replaced with a vagina. From that point on, The Assignment settles into a steady rhythm of cheaply produced action sequences that involve Kitchen tracking down his former crime associates he blames for his incident and shooting them at point-blank range.
On its face, The Assignment is an explicitly transphobic film that heavily borrows from the cultural lexicon of the trans experience to tell a story about a man’s “worst nightmare”—becoming a woman. To listen to the way that Hill talks about the story, though, audiences are supposed to see the movie as an affirmation of the idea that a person’s gender exists independent of their biological sex. From an interview with Entertainment Tonight:
I mean, look, if somebody’s mind is already made up, there’s not much I can probably do in that direction. I will say this: there is absolutely nothing in the movie that is contrary to transgender theory. It accepts the idea — and not only accepts but endorses the idea that we are who we are inside our head, which is the essence of what it’s all about.
There are transgender people that have seen the movie that do not find it objectionable. So, you know, go see it and see what you think. If you still feel that it’s somehow contrary or demeaning to the transgender community, then it seems to me it’s fair to write about it, and somebody can have a discussion about it.
To Hill’s point, The Assignment never experiments with Frank actually conceptualizing of himself as a woman. Instead, it plays on a number of reductive and fear-mongering stereotypes about trans bodies as a ploy to illicit empathy from audiences.
In one scene, Kitchen consults another surgeon about whether or not Kay’s work on his body can be reversed. The surgeon, confounded at Kitchen’s lack of specificity about what exactly happened to him, begins to explain that most “transexuals” (from the script) are advised to wait more than a year before undergoing sexual confirmation surgeries. Frustrated, Kitchen asks point-blank whether he’ll ever be able to orgasm again and the surgeon awkwardly informs him that while it’s possible, there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever be orgasmic again.
The entire exchange is a hasty, clunky, unthoughtful riff on the sorts of consultations that surgeons have with their trans patients long before surgery so that they understand the full extent of what the recovery process will entail. Rather than approaching this with any degree of sensitivity, though, The Assignment treats it as a horror reveal: man’s castration.
Even worse, to the rest of the characters in the film, Kitchen is merely a trans woman who regrets undergoing surgery and is now suffering the consequences of having agreed to go ahead with it too hastily—a widely used, but disproven myth that’s used by anti-transgender bigots.
The deeper you dig into The Assignment, the more it becomes glaringly obvious that the entire film—from conception to its final editing—was a terrible, terrible idea. The writing is bad. The acting is bad. And the ideas at work are atrocious.
If there’s one good thing about the movie, it’s this much: pretty much nobody’s going to see it. Neither should you.