SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'The Son of No One' Is a Buried-Secret Cop Drama Full of Holes

Cop movie bounces nicely between two New York eras but is built around an unconvincing premise.

Strong New York atmosphere and bit parts from Al Pacino and Katie Holmes can’t save this unconvincing plot.

PARK CITY — Sundance Film Festival, Premieres — Queens is no place to escape the past in Son of No One, a buried-secret cop film with one foot planted in post-9/11 New York and another in a grittier era. Atmospheric and intriguing but not wholly satisfying, it has enough genre appeal and star power to sell some tickets but may not benefit from word of mouth.
Channing Tatum plays Jonathan White, a cop who has laid roots in Staten Island -- raising an epileptic daughter with a wife (Katie Holmes) stressed out by his two-hour commute to work -- in hopes of forgetting the Queensboro Projects childhood in which he more-or-less accidentally killed two very bad neighbors, then tried to cover it up with his best friend Vinny.
Sixteen years after the killings, someone is writing letters to a muckraking journalist trying to stir up controversy about the deaths and the way detectives failed to investigate them. The screenplay never explains either the time lag between deed and exposure or why the letter-writer rations out details over many cryptic messages instead of just chronicling the whole thing at once. We're forced to conclude it's because the movie wouldn't exist without the contrivance.
As it is, the letter-writing campaign coincides with mysterious texts and voicemails urging White do take some kind of action, and with a sudden rash of attention given to the young cop by his supervisor, an upwardly-mobile Captain played by Ray Liotta.
Present-day action alternates with scenes set in 1986, where young actor Jake Cherry conveys more about the bottled-up, fearful young White than Tatum does playing the adult version. Cherry looks genuinely terrified by the slum surrounding him, and in scenes with Al Pacino (playing, with more restraint than usual, the detective who sweeps the bodies under the rug and years later is Liotta's boss) his silence looks like the fine line between breakdown and resolve.
The constant back-and-forth effectively conveys the way the past remains front-and-center for White, but it also makes the film feel longer than it is. And even with so much of the picture devoted to the past, we never get quite as much detail as we need to understand how Vinny wound up the zoned-out adult played by Tracy Morgan.
Performances are strong across the board, and the movie offers a solid sense of place. But the mysteries, once explained, don't make a lot of sense. The suspense leads to a rooftop Mexican standoff where writer/director Dito Montiel slices the action into tiny chunks separated by fades to white and freeze-frames -- a tactic that here looks suspiciously like cover-up for a finale that didn't play well as originally shot.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres
Production Companies: NuImage, Millennium Films
Cast: Al Pacino, Channing Tatum, James Ransone, Ray Liotta, Katie Holmes, Ursula Parker, Jake Cherry, Brian Gilbert, Tracy Morgan, Juliet Binoche
Director-Screenwriter: Dito Montiel
Producers: Avi Lerner, Holly Wiersma, John Thompson
Executive producers: Trevor Short, Danny Dimbort, Jake Pushinsky
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Michael Ahern
Music: Jonathan Elias, David Wittman
Costume designer: Sandra Hernandez
Editor: Jake Pushinski
Sales: Cassian Elwes
No rating, 95 minutes