Tatum is able to act against heavies and hold his own.

I don’t know if it’s Dino Montiel’s hidden talent as a director or something but he is helping Channing Tatum quietly put together a fairly respectable filmography in solid, unflashy films that usually feature strong supporting performances from great actors. In The Son of No One Tatum plays a secretive, quiet guy and that restraint makes his job a bit easier when he’s throwing down the acting with guys like Ray Liotta and Al Pacino. Of course, both those guys could do their roles in this movie without breaking  sweat. They are not the draws here, of course.

For me, it’s all about seeing whether Montiel and Tatum can deliver another respectable little movie and I think they’re likely three for three if only because The Son of No One accomplishes the amazing feat of having both Katie Holmes-Cruise and Tracey Morgan not be unforgivably fucking annoying in it. They are serviceable at worst and I’d be thankful for that much. Happily, Morgan especially gives a surprising and haunting performance in his limited screentime.

Through a series of flashbacks, the first few of which are jarring and effectively used to juxtapose the early day to day of John White (Tatum)’s new job in the 118th Precinct, which mostly oversees some housing projects where he happened to grow up, the semi-orphaned son of a cop. White, we learn, is a bit old for a rookie and though Tatum doesn’t allow the control to slip very much in the early moments of the film, you can tell there is something going on with the guy. As the flashbacks progress, it turns out that someone is writing anonymous letters to a local reporter (Juliette Binoche who makes something of very little here) who is dead-set on ruining the legacy of a couple of local cops (Pacino and Liotta) over them. The letters concern the cover-up of two murders in the projects, both of which John White has more than a little to do with.

Always nice to see James Ransome in shit.

Mostly the film is a slow burn, not too preoccupied with being a thriller or trying to pin audiences under weighty twists and turns. It’s sort of a weird approach as there’s never really the feeling that White is the one writing the letters, though everyone else in the precinct seems to think he’s at least responsible in some way. As the campaign to discredit the senior detectives continues, the stakes are raised for White who is forced up against more and more walls with greater and greater desperation until the climax occurs.

It might seem like a boring story and it is definitely a small one with elements we’ve all seen before. White isn’t particularly enamored with the 118th so it’s hardly a story about a cop choosing between old loyalties and new ones. It’s more about whether or not to let the obligations of a past life interfere with the present one. As teenager “Milk”, White’s best friend was a troubled kid named Vincent who helped him before the cops ever got involved with the murders. Vincent grows up to be Tracy Morgan, the fucked up rambling version. Even though Vincent’s guilt seems to be threatening everything good in White’s life (to his credit, White cares a lot more about his family than his job), he can’t help but feel some sense of loyalty and it is mostly this conflict that drives the latter half of the film as White can no longer ignore what is happening and must set aside his own complicated feelings.

Once the gloves come off, Tatum is pretty manic and the performance is given increased weight by the restraint shown earlier.

A different movie would have focused on all these tangled elements and framed them as thriller fodder. We’d watch White racing against time trying to solve the mystery of who is writing the letters while trying to keep the cops off his back and still protect his own secrets. The required ingredients for that kind of movie are present in The Son of No One and it will frustrate people expecting them to be used that way. I found it interesting that the film seems to resist any impulse to go that way. Rather than the reveals being treated like big surprises, implying that the audience are a bunch of goofs, the movie tinkers with the inevitability of all the secrets coming to light and all the players getting exposed. Tatum plays White so close to the vest that you’re not supposed to be able to tell what the guy is thinking, but you can tell that his past totally haunts him and, on some level, he wants to be free of it. At the same time, he can’t dismiss the heavy price of letting the truth come out.  When Pacino tells him at the end, “you’re a free man” this theme reaches its appropriately ambiguous conclusion. The character is indeed free of the ramifications on his own life, but he’s had to watch his past and his loyalties burn up in the exchange.

The Son of No One isn’t a very big movie but it’s a strong one. It’s got a workman feel to it, like Dino Montiel’s other films, something that is blue collar in a way I think the writer/director is comfortable with and perhaps seeks. I like his work, I like the substance and ways he is able to subtly but unmistakably sidestep expectations in films that are otherwise familiar. The Son of No One will definitely not be for everyone, some will find it overly familiar or slight (maybe more like a TV show pilot or something) and that’s okay.

As long as I don’t have to hear any shit about the performances, especially Tatum’s.

The mustache may actually be responsible for 75% of the performance. Scientists were unavailable for comment.

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