Australian writer-director Julius Avery’s serves us a bit of a tidy mess in his debut feature Son of a Gun which dances around various crime tropes like the young gun catching feelings for the bosses girl and the gritty and mundane prison drama and of course, the big heist. The film stars Ewan McGregor as a hardened criminal who takes a teenager, played by Brenton Thwaites, under his wing. The films opens in the confines of an Australian penitentiary as 19 year old J.R. (Thwaites), begins a six-month sentence and as tough as our young protagonist tries to look, he has prey stamped all over his face in this prison populated almost entirely by gritty hardened tattoo covered adults. J.R. still packs some resolve and he stands up for his vulnerable cell mate when faced with rape at the hands of some older inmates whom he later needs protecting from himself. He finds that protection in Lynch played by McGregor who goes against type with his gritty beard and menacing tattoos. Lynch is the man in the prison and duly sees to J.R.’s wellbeing with a caveat of course: J.R. is to play his part on the outside to help execute his prison break.
J.R. set things in motion from the outside and one of the simplest but simultaneously convoluted breakouts comes to fruition with M60’s and a hijacked chopper playing their part in this one of a kind set piece. After the break out chapter closes, the heist section opens. J.R. and Lynch’s crew are drawn into the proverbial last job as the Eastern European crime lord Lennox (Jacek Koman) throws an intriguing score their way. Their plan is to bust into a gold mine to steal the refined gold at source which will fetch quite the sum when the job is done. In the backdrop of all these plans is the friction between Lynch and Lennox which I feel is telegraphed early on as the two were engaged in a simple but ostensibly ludicrous (getting the drift now) chess game whilst Lynch is incarcerated and Lennox in his comfy condo. The tension is upped when J.R. starts to fall for Tasha (Alicia Vikander), one of Lennox’s girls who is supposed to be the forbidden fruit.
Avery serves us some puzzling high-octane sequences that appear implausibly plausible with serviceable suspense and but we get a few distinct narrative threads that aren’t fully realised. The sequences in the prison pass by without fuss when a little more substance to the relationship between Lynch and J.R. could have been realised. On the outside the films shies away from the prospect of a juicy gangster drama and appears to be hiding behind the action and twists that audiences see a mile away but still trip over just because. Early on J.R. gives Lynch a few tips in his chess games with Lennox whilst in jail but then get on the outside and then helps Lennox in this intricate but shallow duel. I feel like there was some foreshadowing and hints to A Fist full of Dollars type situation but the end result hardly lives up to the script’s early invocation.
A lot of the characters are paper thin, Lynch included who isn’t quite hero or villain which ties in with McGregor’s persona and the characters look but Thwaites role did have me thinking. There are times I felt his performance became more and more unconvincing as the film wore on but there is something depth-wise to be said annoying naiveté he portrays but then I remember he is still young and green to this hard-core crime world and is fittingly out of his depth and the film does a good job of portraying this with Tasha and Lynch pulling at him from different ends. J.R. is still in some vain a child and he appears to be holding on to one he never really had. Avery slows down at specific points to capture kids running around and playing jump rope to emphasise this all in addition to a magazine strip of blonde happy smiling kids he knows deep down he will never be. That said the character development is still below par and there is a sequence in the aftermath of the heist that I found particularly moving proving proper fleshed out characters are not beyond our director repertoire. It’s a pity is we get very little of that here.
The film delivers the de-saturated hazy orange pallete I’ve come to expect from the Australian terrain amidst a surprisingly consistent low-humming score which doesn’t conform to the tonal variations accompanied by a ramp electro sound track. The narrative end product ends up distracted by what it could offer by way of different ideas and settings and maybe in a 150 minute feature it could have been more impactful. Nonetheless Avery’s end product can’t be called a bore fest and he certainly takes us on a ride with those inventive set pieces that keeps us entertained notwithstanding the overriding identity crisis that is this film.