Edwin Boyd: Canadian Gangster

Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster
(Canada, 105 min.)
Written and directed by Nathan Morlando
Starring: Scott Speedman, Kelly Reilly, Kevin Durand, William Mapother, Joseph Cross, Charlotte Sullivan, and Brian Cox.
A friend asked me a few weeks ago if I knew of any Canadian gangster films. We were working together as teaching assistants for an introductory film class. One unit in the first semester taught genre via a study of gangster films such as Little Caesar, The Asphalt Jungle, and Goodfellas. The second term offered a study of national cinema, using Canadian films from 1983-1994 as the body for study. I quickly replied “Edwin Boyd,” recalling the film’s success at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall; however, neither of us could conjure up an earlier title, save for maybe A History of Violence, but that invokes a whole other argument regarding Canadian cinema. (It’s also more of a western, really.) There might not be any precedent for Edwin Boyd, then, within Canadian film, which suits the film perfectly well as it offers fresh feel on the genre. With all the recent cuts to Canada’s audio-visual industry films, moreover, Edwin Boyd could also be last Canadian gangster film. It’s fine with me if Edwin Boyd goes down in history as the only Canadian gangster film, since this debut feature by writer/director Nathan Morlando is a solid effort on all fronts.

The film debuted at TIFF 2011 under the title Edwin Boyd where it went on to win Best Canadian First Feature. The film then underwent a title change when it scored big at the Genie nominations, with Scott Speedman and company receiving citations for their work in Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster. Now that the folks at IFC have picked up the pic for distribution south of the 49th Parallel, though, this Canuck gangster flick can be found listed under the generic sub-title that finds itself on the tail end of Boyd’s colon: Citizen Gangster. Whatever works, really, if it means that a Canadian film receives decent distribution. I’ll stick with the original title for clarity’s sake, since it’s more readable.
Based on a true story, Edwin Boyd chronicles the rise and fall (gangster trope!) of bank robber Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman). Eddie is a war veteran who is now working the tedious job of a bus driver. He always dreamed of fame and fortune, though, so the routine is doubly painful. The film introduces Edwin as he croons inside one of those “record your voice” booths they had in the days of Don Draper. Edwin brings home the vinyl single for his adoring wife, Doreen (a strong Kelly Reilly), as a gift for her birthday. “He had a band,” Doreen tells the kids unaware that her husband is in earshot, but, as she trails off, that all stopped with the war.

In a way, Edwin Boyd embodies a generation of young men. Just when they were in their prime and ready to be all that they could be, World War II happened and they were plucked from their paths in order to fight for the greater good. As Edwin shows in his support of his fellow veterans, there is an undeniable bit of valour and nobility that characterizes these men who gave up their youth; however, since Edwin subsequently tosses his TTC hat in the snow bank, one can only be happy with such a shadow if one lives in the idyll bliss of a sweet hereafter. What satisfies Doreen hardly sates Edwin.

Like Rico Bandello, Edwin Boyd wants to “be somebody.” Edwin tries to become an actor and goes to the Lorne Greene School of Acting, but the receptionist informs him that someone with so little experience must start in class, not in the audition line. Edwin soon decides to create a role for himself: he sits before Doreen’s dressing mirror and applies a thick layer of her make-up across his face. When he looks up, the film has cut to a bank. The teller (Tara Nicodermo) hands over a big bag of money to some man who looks like a demented, anorexic clown. Edwin Boyd hits the big time.  Motivated by the idea that life will be better elsewhere – how Canadian – Edwin continues his drama by convincing himself that this is the best way to provide for his family and by moving on to other banks to raise his score. 
Taking a cue from John Dillinger and an etiquette lesson from Jesse James, Edwin Boyd becomes a media sensation as his string of solo bank heists increases in frequency and payout. A polite, mild-mannered showboat, Edwin enjoys the spotlight just as much as the money. As Edwin dances on the teller tables to amplify the event, Speedman does an excellent job of suggesting that Edwin is mildly insane, although one suspects that one needs to be if one is to succeed both in show business and in grand larceny. Speedman, who has done great work with supporting roles in films like Barney’s Version and Atom Egoyan’s Adoration, makes the most of his first lead film role. Speedman’s Boyd is a charismatic, gruff and determined underdog, and a pleasant one to root for, even though one suspects how it all will end.

The snowy streets and wartime housing of Sault Ste. Marie provide an excellent backdrop for the story, which is set in Toronto circa 1950. (They couldn’t shoot there nowadays what with the gentrification and all.) As lensed in stylish and steely cinematography by Steve Cosens (The National Parks Project), Edwin Boyd is a true hard-edged gangster film. It’s also quite an original one, too, since Morlando keeps blaring songs by The Black Keys on the soundtrack during Edwin’s heists/recitals. It’s an authentic, energetic, and anachronistic choice that makes Boyd part Public Enemies, part Marie Antoinette.

How the gangster’s life affects Edwin, however, is really where much of the drama lies. Although he provides for his wife and kids initially, Edwin’s fatalist quest for fame and fortune ultimately leaves them worse off than they were at the beginning. Doreen, a goodly churchgoer, is hardly as proper a fit for life as a gangster’s moll as is Mary Mitchell, the blonde bombshell who provides some titillating rough trade, played by the sultry Charlotte Sullivan. (One wishes the electrifying Sullivan had more screen time.) Mary Mitchell is the antithesis of Doreen’s happily ever-after, for she enters the Boyds’ life when Edwin forms “The Boyd Gang.”
During his first stint in prison, Edwin meets a trio of motivated hooligans: Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), Val (Joseph Cross), and Willie ‘The Clown’ (Brendan Fletcher). Lenny convinces Edwin to assist in a jail break, and the ex-cons are hitting the banks within twenty-four hours. Under the new title “The Boyd Gang,” Edwin’s celebrity increases, as does his notoriety. Pursued by a righteous cop (William Mapother) and split by his allegiance to his family and his gang, Edwin continues down a path that will presumably lead him back to the gutter.

This impressive debut by Nathan Morlando offers the right blend of drama and action, convention and originality, and style and substance. It’s a thrill, not only for Speedman’s star-calibre performance, but for its wry commentary on access and opportunity, and for its snowy landscapes and chilly villains.  Edwin Boyd rejuvenates the gangster genre.

Rating: ½ (out of ★★★★★)

Edwin Boyd screened at The Bytowne in Ottawa as part of the Canada's Top Ten Series
It opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 11th and in Ottawa at The ByTowne on May 18th,

*Photos courtesy eOne Films; photo of Charlotte Sullivan and Joseph Cross courtesy IFC films.