Australian film Son of a Gun looks at a number of different themes, primarily it’s a heist movie but it also examines the desire for a stable family life and the father/son and brother/brother relationships that can evolve in prison. Loyalty, honour and morality are all tested and questioned and all served up with a sizeable dose of action.
JR (Brenton Thwaites) has ended up in jail, it’s a short stint and if he can keep out of trouble he ought to get out unscathed, problem being is that he’s young, and new and a target for the thugs inside. He manages to end up winning over infamous fellow inmate Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) and Lynch offers him protection so long as once JR’s stint is up he follows Lynch’s orders for when he gets outside. Once on the outside, JR becomes part of Lynch’s crew, staging a daring prison break to get him out and they then proceed to work on a gold heist organised by Russian mob boss Sam (Jacek Koman) who helped finance Lynch’s escape. To complicate JR’s new situation a little more, he takes a shining to Tasha (Alicia Vikander), one of Sam’s girls he keeps around, but not everything is as it seems and there is no honour among thieves and crooks.
For writer and first time feature director Julius Avery it’s an ambitious film that packs in a lot of themes and tropes. The first 10 to 15 minutes of the film covers JR’s incarceration and cinematographer Nigel Bluck does a beautiful job of tracking JR’s interactions with his fellow prisoners as well as the prison environment. Angling shots to enhance the claustrophobic feel of his cell or the blocky shower cubicles or contrasting the solitary confinement cage against the blaring sunlight streaming in. It certainly helped that the authenticity comes from getting to film onsite at Casuarina Prison. The minimal amount of dialogue enhances the mood, Thwaites does a brilliant job of conveying more with his physical movements and body language and facial expressions than he does by speaking. While a bulked-up McGregor manages to be the head peacock in the prison yard with a combination of intelligence, black humour and having his two significantly larger comrades do his hefty work for him, despite being smaller in stature compared to some of the other thugs. The prison escape in the film is based on that of John Killick’s daring dash for freedom back in 1999 and plays out very similarly, where JR hijacks a helicopter joyride to snatch Lynch and his accomplices. The planning of the heist and the heist itself are fairly standard though the inclusion of dirt speed-car driver Chris (Nash Edgerton) and a modified 4WD to use as their getaway car was interesting and results in a well shot car chase sequence.
Our two leads Thwaites and McGregor are equally great in varying ways. Thwaites has the most obvious character development, and we’re shown in not so subtle ways that all JR has ever wanted is a stable family and the money to make a real life for himself. While McGregor delivers a blackly comedic Lynch who’s hardened and convinced the only way he can escape his past is with an enormous stash of cash but all the while there’s a current of violent instability rippling just underneath the surface. There’s an interesting relationship between the two of them, almost like father and son but it’s more like mentor and mentee as Lynch takes JR under his wing and teaches him the ways of a criminal life. Even though JR can see that crime pays, you can see him wrestling with the moral ambiguity of it all.
Avery’s failings with this film are mainly due to trying to incorporate too many themes into the one script. It starts off as a prison film and then shifts into a heist but once the character of Tasha gets involved we see this dramatic shift as it becomes about JR’s attempts to win her over. It all just seems to chop and change and it doesn’t really focus on any one thread for too long. I guess this could be a good thing if you have a short attention span though. Additionally, our supporting characters are all a little underdeveloped and we don’t have nearly enough context or backstory for our leads to understand how they got to be where they are, which leaves the film feeling like it has a few plot-holes. Lastly, as the film progresses the clues that are dropped that reveal the twist become a little too obvious and result in the ending being somewhat predictable.
For all the not-so-good things in the film though, it’s an engaging movie to watch and our two leads really do carry the whole thing off remarkably well. Thwaites manages to size up beside the much bigger and brighter star power of McGregor and not be completely outshone.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 110 minutes
Son of a Gun is out now in cinemas everywhere.