Many people harbor dark secrets from their past, memories that eat at their souls and cause them to live in fear of ever being discovered. And in the terrific new film “The Son of No One,” a New York City cop named Jonathan White has an even darker one than most.
Jonathan grew up in a Queens housing project where he earned the nickname “Milk” for being the only white kid surrounded by minorities. He was stuck living there with his impoverished grandmother because his cop father was killed in the line of duty. Surrounded by broken lives and with a black child named Vinny as his only true friend, Jonathan dreamed of getting out fast – particularly because a crack addict named Hanky is constantly terrorizing the kids in the building.
Milk and Vinny find a gun and never really intend to use it other than to scare Hanky away, but in a moment of panic Milk shoots and kills the junkie. When he and Vinny move the body to cover up the killing, another drug dealer finds out and, in an ensuing tussle, the dealer tumbles down a flight of stairs to his death.
Detective Charles Stanford (Al Pacino), the former partner of Milk’s father, figures out these were innocent accidents that took out the worst human trash in the projects so Milk is never charged. The deaths are left officially unsolved.
Sixteen years later, amid NYC’s rabid love for its police after the heroics of 9/11, Milk (now played by Channing Tatum) becomes a rookie cop himself. And just as his precinct chief, Captain Marion Mathers (Ray Liotta) is imploring his officers to keep their noses clean for the public love affair to continue, Milk starts getting mysterious notes threatening to expose his secret killings. Making matters worse for Milk is a neighborhood newspaper editor (Juliette Binoche) printing notes calling for justice in the killings.
As the threats escalate and his past closes in on him, even Milk’s wife (Katie Holmes) starts to wonder what’s going on. The young cop must race against time to figure out who knows about his past and figure out how to stop them from destroying his life.
As written and directed by Dito Montiel, who came out of literally nowhere at age 38 in 2003 to win the best picture prize at Sundance with his debut film “A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints,” “Son” stands in the proudly gritty tradition of Sidney Lumet’s and Martin Scorsese’s best New York City films. Its story is harsh and uncompromising, but it provides a meaty series of ethical dilemmas that rarely are seen in the dumbed-down movies of our times.
Montiel provides a terrific script to build upon but also draws great performances from his deeply talented cast. While Tatum does solid work as Milk, there are three particularly strong and surprising turns. Katie Holmes does her best acting to date while Pacino actually manages to be subtle and affecting. The biggest surprise is comic Tracy Morgan, expertly playing the adult Vinny, a man who has been pushed so far by a hard life that he may never come back to normal.
With a profuse amount of profanity (that nonetheless feels true to the setting and characters) and some intense moments of danger involving children, “A Son of No One” might be difficult viewing for the easily offended. But for those who are longing for the kind of gritty cop drama that is all too rare these days, it more than fills the bill and in my mind stands as one of the very best films of the year.