A mini-Public Enemies, Citizen Gangster tells the mundane based-on-true-life tale of Eddie Boyd (Scott Speedman), a vet who in post-WWII Canada opts to rebel against his disrespected, financially strapped existence as a bus driver by donning his wife Doreen’s (Kelly Reilly) cosmetics, wielding his souvenir German Luger, and robbing banks. A nobody desperate to be somebody, Eddie embraces criminality after failing to get a meeting with Lorne Green at the star’s local acting school, and performance proves to be key to Eddie’s subsequent career; between his facial makeup, flamboyant smiles, dancing atop bank counters, and charmingly rebellious newspaper persona, Eddie takes to the spotlight, becoming a media darling replete with smitten female fans. Writer-director Nathan Morlando wants to equate Eddie’s thieving with the rise of celebrity in a manner similar to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, including a strikingly similar sequence in which Eddie watches a pre-movie newsreel report about his exploits. Yet Citizen Gangster‘s commentary on our fascination with law-breakers is virtually nonexistent, except to the extent that the film itself revels in the doomed romanticism of its own protagonist, whose rise up the Most Wanted list eventually involves jail breaks, partnerships with fellow robbers, and futile attempts to carve out an idyllic suburban piece of the American Dream.
Drained of virtually all color, Morlando’s palette has a wintery iciness that captures Eddie’s emotional remoteness, which is similarly expressed through framing that leaves characters visually isolated even when together; matching shots through a doorway, one of Eddie and his gang celebrating a marriage proposal and the other of two men executed by hanging, suggest that, no matter the minor triumphs, Eddie’s tale was destined to head in one miserable solitary direction. Alas, Citizen Gangster‘s story is defined by bank jobs, shootouts, and familial tensions between Eddie and Doreen that feel rusty and worn-out, too routine to manage anything like suspense or surprise. The film’s consideration of Doreen’s plight, who’s increasingly abandoned by her husband as he gallivants around the country with his cohorts, is admirable but goes nowhere because there’s no depth beneath the action’s evocatively frosty exterior, just familiar truths about the dangerousness of arrogance and the futility of criminality. Speedman layers Eddie’s showmanship and cockiness with a melancholy that adds to the fatalistic mood. Yet even in an early scene that finds Eddie helping a wheelchair-bound vet on and off the bus, Speedman’s stabs at subtlety are sabotaged by a script that spells things out too clearly and neatly. It’s not the actor, but the material itself, that’s ultimately lacking in nuance and heft.