From its opening shot of a quotation by the Argentine writer José Narosky — “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers” — “Citizen Gangster” announces its sympathies. Drawing on the exploits of Edwin Boyd, a Canadian World War II veteran who became that country’s most infamous bank robber, this unusually cerebral crime movie chooses psychic pain over public-enemy thrills.
That decision makes Boyd a more complex and less accessible antihero, and Scott Speedman plays him with a vulnerability that softens even his brief displays of aggression. When we meet Boyd in 1945, he’s a disgruntled Toronto bus driver, straining to support a wan wife (Kelly Reilly), two children and impossible dreams of an acting career. Eager for money and attention, he paints his face, grabs an old pistol and demands cash from an astonished bank teller: the beginning of a life that he’s ill equipped to handle.
Refusing to burnish the myth of the romantic outlaw, the writer and director, Nathan Morlando, maintains a tone of persistent melancholy that tinges every scene with foreboding. As Boyd joins forces with other thieves, the gang’s adventures unspool without suspense or glorification; instead, Mr. Morlando’s chilly compositions, awash in shades of ice and shadow, emphasize Boyd’s increasingly narrow range of options and air of despondency. This has the unfortunate effect of draining energy from fine performances — especially those of Kevin Durand as a fellow criminal, and Brian Cox as Boyd’s judgmental father — and from a central character as desperate for limelight as lucre.
Assembled with the help of telephone conversations between Mr. Morlando and his subject (who died in 2002), “Citizen Gangster” is a good-looking but passionless affair that remains stubbornly aloof from its audience. Only when we see Boyd, decked out in greasepaint and devilish grin, perform an impromptu soft-shoe shuffle on a bank counter, do we catch a peek of the performer who charmed as easily as he broke the law.