With 2005’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and 2009’s “Fighting,” writer/director Dito Montiel showed interest in detailing the seedy underbelly of life in New York City, soaking up the heart and soul of a violent metropolis. Unfortunately, he’s constructed two decidedly underwhelming pictures, each falling well short of their poetic intentions. A third effort, the cop drama “The Son of No One,” joins the group, forming a trilogy of mediocrity, finding Montiel swinging wildly to capture an elusive tonality of vulnerability, which always slides into excessive melodrama. The toxic textures of the city are firmly in place, but the rest of this movie flounders, focused too intently on heavy thespian articulation and a central mystery that’s solved by the start of the second act.
“The Son of No One” carries a nervous energy, with paranoia flowing through the movie as Jonathan finds himself hounded by memories and threats, unable to trust anyone. Montiel takes special care with that sensation of paralysis, using it to construct a police procedural thriller with an oppressive emotional hold, not taking an interest in precise levels of suspense, but the reverberations of guilt and fear. Utilizing a consistently droning score and thick NYC atmosphere, Montiel is doing his finest impression of a Spike Lee feature with “The Son of No One,” looking to excavate a sincerity of feeling that holds a more profound position than any collection of cheap cop film clichés. The ambition is laudable but the execution is lifeless. Once again, Montiel is lost inside of his own head, fumbling the needs of his story by concentrating on internalized strife that maintains little appeal.
At the core of “The Son of No One” is a mystery. Who’s writing the messages? Who wants Jonathan to suffer for crimes committed such a long time ago? There’s a slight feel for suspense at times, creating tension in the precinct, where the tortured cop is deviously harassed by his superior and twitchy partner (James Ransone). Jumping back and forth between time periods, Montiel collects a convincing portrait of community insanity, making Jonathan’s actions more about defense and survival than murder, making his modern day silence coil with frustration. The anguish is convincingly established, yet drains of importance the more permissive the filmmaker becomes with the cast, who launch emphatic performances that often resemble Broadway auditions with all their gesticulation and indulgence (Binoche, a gifted actress, is wildly miscast as a hardened Queens newspaper editor), severing a required sense of realism to such a bleak premise.
Equally as destructive to the puzzle is an early scene where Jonathan’s wife is threatened over the phone. Anyone paying attention during the picture will be able to pick out the voice instantly, further eroding climactic revelations of troublemaking. Perhaps Montiel wasn’t interested in creating tension, yet his film is shaped like a traditional whodunit, employing a cast of extreme characters to keep Jonathan in the dark, trapped in a corner with his own demons. Giving up the villain so early cripples with little here passes for suspense.
The fringes of “The Son of No One” are often more interesting than the story being sold. Ideas on the gentrification of the Queensboro Projects introduce community hostility, and a running theme on the erosion of post-9/11 police hero worship feels like an honest assessment of a city plagued with corruption and crime. The individual flavors are fascinating, but the feature as a whole feels fogged, attempting to communicate a persistence of shame in the most scattered, accommodating manner imaginable. In other words, it’s a typical Dito Montiel motion picture.