“A man has to learn to live with s**t,” Al Pacino growls several times in “The Son of No One,” and the movie pretty much proves his point. Writer-director Dito Montiel’s film is a distinct comedown from “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” which was already overrated.
“Son” is an oddball police melodrama told in a sort of style that involves clumsy chronological shifts, shaky handheld cinematography, weirdly angled camerawork, impressionistic montages, mumbled and often overlapping dialogue, cruelly overemphatic closeups, and footage of 9/11 to serve as a broader counterpart to its more limited tale of gloom and doom.
Channing Tatum stars as Officer Johnny White, who’s transferred in 2002 from his safe suburban beat to the precinct in his old home area of Queens. The area of projects where he grew up in poverty is currently witnessing an increased police presence, spearheaded by his captain Marion Mathers (Ray Liotta), ostensibly to make the neighborhood safer but actually to prepare it for a development deal that will turn it into gentrified condominiums. The precinct is also currently being roiled by some letters to the brusque, activist editor of a local paper, Bridges (Juliette Binoche), that allege that back in 1986, two murders in the projects were covered up by the PD.
Intercut with this “modern” narrative are flashbacks to 1986, when Johnny (Jake Cherry) is a pale, frightened kid, nicknamed Milk, living with his doddering grandma in the projects after the death of his policeman dad. We see early on that it’s he who was responsible for one of the killings—the shooting of a violent junkie—a deed that his pal Vincent (Brian Gilbert) helps to cover up. But as the flashbacks continue, it’s made clear that he also caused the second death, that of a sleazy drug dealer. Fortunately for the kid, the cases are handled by his father’s world-weary old partner Charlie Stanford (Pacino), who pretty much knows the score but assures the boy that nobody cares about the victims and he’ll simply close the books on the deaths.
Now, however, Bridges’ harping on the cover-up has resurrected the issue, and White, still suffering the effects of his childhood experience, is dragged into the matter by Mathers and his own goofball partner (John Ransone). The issue is whether Bridges can be stopped from making an issue of the accusations (only with difficulty, it becomes clear), and where the letters are coming from in the first place. With respect to the latter question, suspicion falls on the grown-up Vinnie (Tracy Morgan), a mentally-challenged shell of his former self. Matters finally culminate in a rooftop confrontation involving gunshots and standoffs. But before then the matter has also darkened Johnny’s relationship with his wife Kerry (Katie Holmes) and their sweet epileptic daughter.
This scenario isn’t all that credible or compelling in the first place, but it’s rendered all but unintelligible by Montiel’s messy technique and chaotic narrative choices. The abrupt shifts of time and place and jarring visual transitions may be intended to increase the sense of mystery, but instead they make for a chaotic, messy result. The performances suffer from the approach, too, ranging from dully monochromatic (Tatum) to blusteringly over-the-top (Pacino), with the rest falling uncomfortably between the two extremes.
When the answer to who wrote the letters is finally given, it proves no surprise whatsoever. But the ending does provide some solace to Johnny, who’s told he can finally forget the past and get on with his life. The viewer might be comforted by this message about the power of putting bad things out of your mind, because it will assure him that he can blot out the unhappy experience of having watched a dreary, pointless, stylistically blowsy film like “The Son of No One.”