A Serbian rock star is reduced to rolling in a wheelchair after losing both legs in a land-mine accident, just one facet of the rough identity crisis he grapples with in “No One’s Son,” a heavyhanded psychological thriller layered with just enough political intrigue to raise it above pure potboiler status. Selected by Croatia as the country’s 2008 Oscar foreign-language film submission, Arsen Anton Ostojic’s stylistically fragmented murder mystery has probably missed its window for U.S. release, leaving the pic to seek its fortunes closer to home (where it earned six national prizes at last year’s Pula Film Fest).
Ivan Baric (Alen Liveric) was the lead singer in a band called Refinery before serving in the Croatian War of Independence, which gives the angry paraplegic every reason to think that if he hadn’t enlisted, not only would his legs and family still be intact, but his band would be world-famous by now. Nearly 20 years later, the only singing Ivan does is belting out an old Chetnik chant in crowded bars, half hoping the offended listeners might put him out of his misery.
On one level, the character’s reckless behavior serves to illuminate the plight of war veterans. But the story’s subsequent twists overreach as they attempt to inflate Ivan’s already fragile state of mind into some sort of metaphor for the country at large (as the title implies, secrets surrounding Ivan’s paternity ultimately say more about Croatia’s national identity).
Broadening the scope of the stage play on which “No One’s Son” is based (adapted by its original scribe, Mate Matisic), helmer Ostojic relies largely on cinematic tricks to create tension: A synthesizer tone gives everything an unsettling vibe, while flashbacks to Ivan’s wartime experience (in which he stumbles through the minefield with a Steadicam mounted on his chest) provide harrowing glimpses of how he lost his legs.
But the true cause of Ivan’s agitation is more recent, directly tied to the corpse his mother and father are seen desperately trying to cover up early in the film. One of the pic’s recurring themes is that war effectively compromised the once-straightforward identities of everyone in the country — civilians as well as soldiers — and Ivan’s parents have secrets of their own clearly worth killing to keep buried.
Laying the cynicism on a bit thick, Matisic’s script conceives Ivan’s father, Izidor (Mustafa Nadarevic), as a politician days away from a big election, then arranges the story’s chronology to reveal the character’s hypocrisy.
Though heavily stylized (right down to the gritty green filters so popular in contemporary horror movies), “No One’s Son” unfolds like a high-end TV movie for its draggy first two acts, with the frequent skips between characters and time periods generally failing to engage. But Matisic and Ostojic pulls the threads together toward the climax, hitting the right emotional buttons in a finale that translates the consequences of the opening-scene murder into big-picture questions.
While the peripheral characters all feel like stock types (especially Zdenko Jelcic as a goonish former police chief), leading man Liveric throws himself into Ivan’s role with over-the-top fervor; it’s capital-“A” Acting. Slick visual effects convincingly erase his legs for the postwar scenes.
Ivan’s song, which translates to, “Who’s that saying, who’s that lying, that Serbia is small?” clearly means more to Croatian viewers than it does to an international aud, though it’s not hard to substitute someone whistling Dixie in Compton or Harlem to understand what a creative suicide ploy it could be.