In the Queensboro projects in 1986, a pre-adolescent boy accidentally murders two junkies in close succession. Both are clear-cut self-defense cases—one rushes at him in a bugged-out rage, the other threatens him and kicks his dog in the head—and even if they weren’t, no court would throw the book at him. Nevertheless, his late father’s ex-partner in the local police precinct (Al Pacino) buries the case to protect him and his emotionally fragile friend, who could be seen as an accomplice. And as insanely nonsensical as it is, the cover-up turns out to be worse than the crime—a dark secret that haunts the boy into young adulthood, lands his friend in the mental ward, and burbles up 16 years later, when a series of anonymous letters prompt a reopening of the cold case.
The contrivances that give life to Dito Montiel’s third feature, The Son Of No One, are frustrating enough on their face, from the extreme unlikelihood of the two deaths to a cover-up that’s unnecessary long before it becomes calamitous. Yet the film’s heady themes of sin, guilt, corruption, and abandonment might have survived anyway, were it not so lugubrious, as if the past were weighing on its protagonist like a wet sandbag. It doesn’t help that Channing Tatum, Montiel’s star and muse from his earlier films, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting, has trouble with introspective roles. Tatum broods inexpressively as the grown-up orphan, now working in his father’s old Queens district while his wife (Katie Holmes) and daughter are stuck in a house two hours away on Long Island. When anonymous letters and phone calls about the ’86 murders start to surface, it’s a concern for his boss (Ray Liotta) and his former friend (Tracy Morgan), whom he finds mute and haunted on a Queensboro rooftop.
Montiel is a gifted filmmaker, and even when The Son Of No One languishes (which it does much of the time), his feeling for New York City street life remains as vibrant and authentic as his first two efforts; he resembles Sidney Lumet, or a less precious James Gray. Yet the grimy realism of Queens police precincts and dilapidated housing projects only underscores the pained convolutions of Montiel’s script. A few individual performances survive—Liotta finds a little of his old edge, and Pacino briefly revisits Serpico territory—but they’re smothered in the slow-burning absurdity.