Synopsis – Locked up for a minor crime, 19 year old JR quickly learns the harsh realities of prison life. Protection, if you can get it, is paramount. JR soon finds himself under the watchful eye of Australia’s most notorious criminal, Brendan Lynch. But protection comes at a price. Lynch and his crew have plans for their young protegee. Upon release, JR must help secure Lynch’s freedom, staging a daring prison break. As a reward, he’s invited to join the crew as they plan a gold heist that promises to deliver millions. However, as things start to go wrong, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. JR finds himself unsure of whom he can trust and on a collision course with his former mentor.
My Take – Debut filmmakers usually go the Indie route, well that is without a doubt their passion & probably the best way to contain just in case the film doesn’t turn out the way they want it to be, but here director Julius Avery, the cinematographer of the acclaimed TRUE DETECTIVE television series has taken the opposite route and I think while it’s far from perfect it is a killer debut that’s sure to set him up well & good. This Australian film is trashy, sometimes unwatchable due its violence and underwritten parts but also appropriately intelligent, purposely cast and staged with memorable action sequences. The film isn’t concerned by plot. It recycles narratives collected from past genre films. The story follows JR (Brenton Thwaites) who is serving time for a minor offense. Despite barely being an adult at 19, JR has attitude, and takes it upon himself to act out when he witnesses what is happening to his cell-mate of only a few days. But this is prison, and every action has its consequence – much like every move made in a game of chess.
It is the game of chess that introduces JR to hardened criminal Brendan (Ewan McGregor in one of his best roles to date); JR boldly proclaiming that Brendan is three moves away from checkmate. After proving himself to be on the ball, Brendan takes interest. When JR’s attempt to help his cell-mate leads to him being the new target, he is offered protection by Brendan’s ‘crew’. He is offered what is essentially a deal with the devil. Protection, for a price that he has no idea about. Before he can decide, his mind is made up for him when he is attacked and promptly saved by Brendan and co. in savage fashion. This protection obviously affects JR, an orphan who perhaps unwittingly is desperate for a father figure of any sort. Brendan’s complete trust in JR, as well as his defense of him as the rest of the crew don’t take such a shining to him, further entrenches these fatherly feelings. As the film progresses however, it becomes clear that there is mistrust within the group. How much exactly, and what will result in this mistrust, is one of the many elements of tension that this movie provides. In addition to this, despite Brendan’s constant defense and protection of JR, we can’t help but wonder what his true intentions are. He seems to like JR, but doesn’t trust him as far as he could throw him, and the rest of the crew aren’t his biggest fans either. Following the escape, the film borrows another worn crime trope: the small time thug in love with the boss’s girl. JR falls for an immigrant named Tasha (Alicia Vikander). She works as a waitress in a strip club and she says only sticks around because she makes the crime boss, another man working with Brendan, look good. The scenes shot in a real prison, are extremely intense due to an intense musical score and tight framing. Thwaites is twenty-five but looks young for his age, adding fear when he is surrounded by heavyweight thugs. The close-ups allow him to act silently, relying on his eyes.
JR remains aware of the danger closing in on him but is powerless. As Brendan, Ewan McGregor is also a strong acquisition. He is one of the most diverse actors in the industry and knows how to be intimidating but also injects black humor into his role. Both actors do well to enhance their characters because Avery’s own script is short on context and the dialogue resorts mostly to cursing. There is no back story for JR, aside from hints of an abusive father and his motive like wanting a family feels sketchy and underdeveloped. We aren’t told why he is in a maximum security prison either, a sizable plot hole considering he is released after six months. After the second heist, the film runs out of steam. Considering how much is already pinched, it’s not a surprise when there is a betrayal following the heist and these types of gangster films, specifically the ones from early Hollywood would only run for as long as eighty or ninety minutes, instead of under two hours. Some smaller scenes are poorly staged, including some bad disguises at an airport. Meanwhile, there is a morally questionable ending where a major character escapes judgement far too lightly and dilutes any meaning the film might have about father figures. Avery could have dug deeper with this central male relationship! On the whole, Son of a Gun is a guilty pleasure intense action thriller rather than a character study. It is trash but at least it is a well-made kind of trash.
Director – Julius Avery
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes