The sporadic bursts of ambition in Julius Avery’s Son Of A Gun suffocate in its glaring failures. It’s a curious film, concurrently determined and lazy, propelled by a good performance, a great score and some grand visuals but burdened to an incapacitating degree by its engagement with one crime film banality after another. Crime films are far too commonplace within the Australian film industry, an industry that has rarely managed to break free from its crime film, kitchen sink drama and desert film shackles successfully. It’s clear that Avery, a first time feature filmmaker, is trying to conjure something substantial, but distinguishing a film about criminals in Australia is no easy feat.
JR (Brenton Thwaites) is a bland young man who seems destined to draw unfavourable comparisons to James Frecheville’s character in Animal Kingdom. Locked up as a 19-year-old for a minor crime, JR meets the charismatic Brendan (Ewan McGregor), whose enigmatic past intrigues him. Brendan takes JR under his wing and offers him protection, quickly established as an absolute necessity amidst the violence and rape of incarceration. But after Brendan convinces JR to help him escape, JR soon finds himself embroiled in a deadly organisation from which he may not be able to back down.
There are flashes of real energy to Son Of A Gun that are made all but redundant by the rest of it. The opening twenty minutes in particular, as JR struggles to adjust to life in prison and ultimately plays a part in a daring jailbreak, are promising and it’s entirely possible that the film would have ended up being far superior had the filmmakers stretched this simple premise into a feature length. Unfortunately, once the jailbirds are out, Avery throws us into a discord of overused crime stereotypes involving the Russian Mafia, maddening musings on honour amongst thieves and one of the most forced and improbable romances ever committed to cinema.
Thwaites is a genuine concern, exuding neither charm nor charisma. JR’s eagerness to get himself involved with the group is entirely incongruous with his insipid demeanour. It’s never clear how JR feels about his position amongst the gang, and if this is the pursuit of ambiguity on the part of the filmmakers then it is a failed one. Weak attempts at injecting the boy with personality, such as a collage of happy families that he trounces about with in his wallet, are poorly executed and regrettable. Ewan McGregor is a welcome presence, thankfully employing his ability to inject dignity into the most unsubstantial of roles – perhaps a skill he picked up during his time working on the Star Wars trilogy. Matt Nable, whose work on the recent Fell was absolutely remarkable, also does a brief but memorable job.
Beneath the faults there are some moments of real clarity, which tend to make the weak elements all the weaker. The entire opening stretch in prison, concluding with a fantastically executed prison break is certainly a highlight, as is a thrilling heist that might not be out of place in some of Michael Mann’s best work. In fact, Mann’s influence permeates Son Of A Gun, for better or for worse, for great action scene or embarrassing love subplot. Mann himself is an imperfect filmmaker, and Son Of A Gun, in its unbridled admiration, bears the full burden of that imperfection.