If you've got genuine New York gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, chances are Dito Montiel wants to shoot it. A model turned punk rocker turned adapter of his own gritty writing, the Astoria-raised multi-hyphenate has an infatuation with the decay and grime of his home metropolis, a self-reflective proclivity that yields a kind of pulled-from-the-gutter ambiance. With the crooked-cop drama The Son of No One, the guy who brought you the autobiographical, memoir-based A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints translates another self-penned story, and in the process offers an interpretation of New York that's consummately ugly. In shaky-cam shots that often seem to be spliced together with a knowing choppiness, Montiel captures bloody bathtubs, bum fights, low-income housing, and rooftop fellatio as if documenting some greasy nightmare, his pulpy, tactile visions less real than surreal. His muse (and ex-model kindred spirit), Channing Tatum, is doughy and bereft of beauty in the lead role, while co-stars Ray Liotta and Al Pacino have never been seen with so many accentuated facial pock marks and wrinkles, respectively. A police precinct is a screamy sitcom of a war zone, a dog is kicked to death in a filthy stairwell, and a fat, couch-ridden grandma is the sunniest part of an apartment setting.
And yet, there's something curiously, mildly refreshing about Montiel's anti-aesthetic, which offers a jagged sliver of distinction amid a tired genre. The Son of No One is driven by mood and atmosphere to the extent that the stakes-free story and interest-free characters seem almost incidental, and such is surely the movie's saving grace—a perverse style that overshadows a severe lack of substance. For example, Montiel's great, hideous aerial shots of the pivotal Queensboro Projects, whose buildings fill the frame with geometric, puzzle-like shapes, far exceed the puzzle of his meager narrative, which jumps impulsively from 2002 back to 1986, when the younger version of Tatum's Queens cop, Jonathan White, unwittingly killed two men and got away with it. The horror of the boy's ordeal doesn't get under your skin so much as emit a certain holy-shit humor, as it's filmed in a jerky, sensationalistic fashion that sees shouting matches among sweaty grotesques culminate with gun shots and slapdash carnage. Flash forward to the aughts, and the older White, a typical Tatum do-gooder with a neglected wife (Katie Holmes) and an epileptic daughter, is being haunted by anonymous letters that the local paper keeps publishing, their content threatening to expose the truth behind a covered-up, 16-year-old double homicide ("Nobody cared," the letters all-too-fittingly read).
With a goofy, paranoid urgency, Montiel hurriedly zooms in on the letters like he's making the grindhouse version of Zodiac; however, he can't inject urgency into the tale he's telling, which involves the mafia and a subversive post-9/11 perspective. The conscience-challenging threats White faces coincide with a half-hearted indictment of a supposed outbreak of police corruption that rose after the towers fell—a time when cops were exalted beyond reproach. Though supported by the idealistic zeal of a plucky, leftist journo (Juliette Binoche, whose name in the opening credits is its own source of entertainment), this element becomes little more than another script shortcoming, even when newsreel speeches about a better, rebuilt America coincide with shots of Queensboro Projects residents being booted from their homes by the boys in blue. The same dramatic flaccidity befalls a plot thread concerning White's estranged, mentally ill friend (Tracy Morgan), and the circumstances surrounding Liotta's characteristically fiery police captain, who lacks bite despite the actor's spectacular scenery chomping. The Son of No One provides superficial enjoyment, which can only be had if paired with an appreciation for the singular muck Montiel uses to hold it together. It's a movie recommended for those in search of a fine, satisfying mess.