The tale of the good man driven by desperate circumstances into a life of crime is one that’s been told almost as often as that of the colorful bank robber who becomes a national folk hero, so a more jaded filmgoer might conclude that you’re getting two overdone movies for the price of one with Nathan Morlando’s Citizen Gangster. But to dismiss the film based on its logline would be a mistake—Morlando may be telling you a story you’ve heard, but he tells it as though he doesn’t know that. Set under the perpetually overcast skies of post-war Canada, Citizen Gangster is less about the crimes than it is about the criminal, less interested in the thrill of theft than about what’s going through the head of the man holding the gun. Morlando may not break any new ground here, but he spins the familiar yarn into something fresh and urgent.
Edwin Boyd (a mustachioed Scott Speedman) is a former soldier, now driving a bus. He can’t fully support his wife Doreen (Kelly Reilly) and their two kids; even with her doing wash all day, they can’t pay their bills. Edwin dreams of being a movie star (he once had a nice chat with Lorne Greene on the bus), and wants to do better for his family. So he grabs his Luger, covers his face in greasepaint, and holds up the local bank. And with that, his life of crime begins.
Boyd’s story is true; the dapper bank robber became an object of Canadian media fascination in the early 1950s, but when he was finally arrested, he met a fellow bank man, Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), in the pen. They broke out, with the help of two other men, and the “Boyd Gang” was born—pulling more jobs, going in and out of jail, going deeper and deeper into the underworld.
As he is drawn in further, he expects Doreen to follow, which provides friction that is both predictable and compelling. Their arguments are boilerplate, but the actors are invested, so we are too. Speedman is a handsome fellow who doesn’t always get his due as an actor; this is a fine showcase for his rugged likability. He gets a good, full arc to follow, efficiently transmitting Edwin’s anguish and despair in the early scenes, then revealing how he transforms as a criminal. He gets darker, harder; his persona in the banks gets more flamboyant. He finds that the act gives him an identity, and it’s intoxicating. Reilly, familiar as Watson’s wife in the Sherlock Holmes movies, is simultaneously fragile and headstrong, and her playing of their final scene is so strong, one can even forgive the screenplay for the “You think you can just waltz back in here” line.
Supporting performances are also shrewd—Durand’s Jackson is menacing and unpredictable, while Charlotte Sullivan transforms a standard moll role into something pulsing and alive—though it seems they could’ve given Brian Cox a bit more to do. The music is somewhat problematic; Max Richter’s score is tense and scary (particularly during Edwin’s first job), but the Black Keys cues are jarringly incongruent. Still, Citizen Gangster is a good, solid, absorbing picture, and one that makes a potentially stale story seem vibrant and new.
"Citizen Gangster" is out tomorrow in limited release.