Repeatedly throughout the curiously somnolent The Son of No One, a rookie Queens cop named Jonathan “Milk” White (Tatum Channing) stops what he’s doing to stare down at a copy of an anonymous note sent to a local newspaper. Its outraged message: two people were killed 16 years earlier in the Queensbridge projects and the police ignored the crime. Given the close attention Jonathan pays to this clipping, no one will be surprised to learn that he has intimate knowledge of the incident.
Whether anyone will care is another question. The movie, written and directed by Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), is filled with competent but unexciting performances and, like its protagonist, is strangely lugubrious. Weaving back and forth between 1986 and 2002, it trickles out a series of revelations that aren’t exactly revelatory. When the aforementioned killings take place in 1986, young Jonathan (Jake Cherry) is an orphan living with his grandmother and getting picked on by drug addicts and other shiftless sorts. These are the film’s strongest scenes, evocative of time, place and the genuine emotion of a boy trapped in a bad spot.
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The present day action features a man trapped in a bad spot, but with less urgency. It begins not long after the adult Jonathan is assigned to Queens, a long commute from the Staten Island home he shares with his wife Kerry (Katie Holmes in an unusually profane turn) and their young daughter Charlie. It seems, though is never explicitly laid out, that Charlie’s need for good health insurance – she has seizures – spurred Jonathan’s decision to follow his dead father onto the police force. Nothing else about the job seems to compel him. Certainly not the teasing company of his fellow officers or snide captain (Ray Liotta)
Montiel boxes himself into a narrative corner with his big secret; this case seems unworthy of having warranted much secrecy in the first place and incapable of stirring real tabloid outrage if and when the story is unearthed. Except for Jonathan, who is bewildered by what’s happening, every character seems prone to over-reaction, from the intimidating cop (Al Pacino, subdued for a change) who interrogates young Jonathan to a strident newspaper editor (a woefully miscast Juliette Binoche) to Jonathan’s wife, who cuts him not one minute of slack. It’s a cast of self-important characters, the kind of drama queens who envision themselves as starring in a Very Serious movie. Which this is not.
But, full disclosure: my television habits may have interfered with my reading of the film. Jonathan finally gets up the gumption to go see his old friend Vinnie, his prime suspect for the letter’s author. Stuck in the projects and heavily medicated for schizophrenia, the adult Vinnie is played by Tracy Morgan. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with Morgan’s performance, but watching him avoid eye contact, all I could think of was the story arc from Season 4 of 30 Rock, when Morgan’s character Tracy Jordan becomes an Oscar nominee for his gritty work as an abused guy from the ghetto in a film called Hard to Watch, Based on the Novel Stone Cold Bummer. The 30 Rock writers were spoofing the movie Precious, but it could so easily have been The Son of No One.
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