“The Son of No One” pokes at social and political gray matter thought to have been absent in minds today. The film opens in post-9/11 Queens. Jonathan White (Channing Tatum) transfers to precinct 118 in the same district he grew up in during the mid-‘80s — a time White struggles to comprehend and put to rest.
In 1986, in apartment 1C, the young White’s life is forever changed along with that of his close friend Vinnie (Tracy Morgan). In the projects where they live, within an atmosphere of strife and contention, the youths meet living conditions not suitable for a rat, and tenants who roam and stagger aimlessly.
The grunge and filth captured through low lighting and disheveled abodes is only reemphasized by the eerie presences of Hanky and Geronimo. The former an addict, the latter his dealer, add to the layer of New York City many never see.
The two vagrants are pivotal cornerstones to the depth and reach of the movie’s underlying themes of injustice, inequality and deception through appearance, but neither of the two make it further than the first act — being gunned or thrown down by the hands of a young White. These themes are spray painted in a metaphysical statement on White’s locker: What are YOU doing?
Each murder goes unpunished. Both carry those same resounding themes throughout the film. White never holds himself accountable for the killing of Hanky in self-defense (a tension-laden scene involving a shower room and a revolver), and Geronimo during a passionate lash out. Through the graces and charity of detective Charles Stanford (Al Pacino), White is taken in under his care even though the audience is never quite sure how.
Vinnie, a witness to each murder, promises White that everything will be OK, even as he faces poverty, eviction and rape. “I never told anyone,” the younger and then older Vinnie would repeat, still within the fabric of project livelihood. Even though White makes it out, he is soon pulled back to the home he never had or wanted.
There is never a lagging moment. Even a scene as mundane as two patrons at a coffee shop becomes suspenseful as a shutter aperture closes around the figures and we know they are not alone. Many scenes carry on this way with an added effect at crucial plot points: audible increase to the effects of a gunshot, a cracking skull or a camera lens collapsing and reopening. Highlighting intense visceral action sets “The Son of No One” apart from look-alike cop thrillers.
Flashbacks between 2002 and 1986 juxtapose his current situation as a cop and caring father and husband with that of his younger, less fortunate self — between times where his captain, played by Ray Liotta, says “trust me, no one gives a s***” and times when the younger White pleads for justice and a voice.
His family at the precinct, Liotta and Pacino, urge him to heed their advice, but they only worsen the situation by tearing into a file that would have been best left shut. Nevertheless, the file is worth dusting off if it evokes the pristine, and sometimes not so pristine, acting throughout the film.
Tatum, in what has been a profoundly emotional and starkly different casting than his earlier work, shines but only as much as the lampshade Katie Holmes allows. Holmes, starring as his wife Kerry White, reaches for the mantle of the script that does not belong to her role. In scenes where the secluded housewife begs to know with whom her husband is running around with, she dilutes the overly under pronounced emotion that is held for Morgan until the end.
It may have once been difficult to judge the ever-present distance between high and low society, the corruption above and the stragglers below, but with the country Occupying Everywhere “The Son of No One” successfully asks of its viewers: What are YOU doing?Contact Kenneth Rosen.