Son of a Gun is Grand Theft Auto Western Australia in the best and worst possible ways.
Young criminal JR (Brenton Thwaites) is admitted into W.A’s biggest maximum security prison like a guppy in a piranha tank. When his prison wing’s vilest rapists chose him as their next meat fleshlight, he makes a deal with fellow inmate and famed armed robber Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) and his partner Sterlo (Matt Nable); protection in exchange for favours on the outside. This bargain with devils drags him into a hurricane crime spree of prison breaks, armed robbery and a cross country manhunt.
Son of a Gun has a grubby style, the grit is so palpable that you feel like instead of glorifying criminality, you’re looking at it through a dirty fingernail. The action revels in scraping fenders, cars that barely start and hopelessly outmatched local law enforcement in the face of a bogan arsenal. Avery omits protagonist JR (Thwaites) back story and leaves you and he to fend through the depths of the WA underworld like helpless babes.
Avery’s writing and direction is impressive for his first feature. While it’s clear that he’s a huge fan of the crime genre, he’s painting a very rough portrait of an eclectic Australian crime landscape of money and political manipulation. It’s a wrestle between the blue collar and the palatial, the international and utterly bogan. JR, the young (I assume partly aboriginal) lead faced is constantly with the sublime lure of the ocean and potential for escape and yet he’s shackled to this impossible partnership with his debt and their existence. It’s a philosophically engaged direction that wants the audience to have room to imagine his predicament. The action is slick, especially when jack of all trades Nash Edgerton turns up as their driver and gets to perform his own crazy car stunts in a huge police chase. The helicopter prison break may be one of the coolest moments in an Aussie action film that I’ve seen in some time.
I feel like there’s going to be a drinking game created for when I mention Michael Mann in a film review; BUT this particular nod to Thief (starring James Caan) that is so undeniable that it made me sit straight up in my seat. JR has pieced together a collage of what he wishes that his life could have been. It’s a white family, a suburban house and a nice car. It screams of a sentimental safety blanket for a young institutionalised child, who has been battered by hegemonic media to say that THIS is what life should be like. There are these beautiful existential struggles without pretence. Thwaites delivers in the quiet moments. When the character JR is at his most vocal, it reveals his petulance and naivety. When he’s silently absorbing his surroundings or reacting to the unfolding carnage he’s at his strongest.
McGregor is both charming and menacing as Lynch. He’s meticulous, controlled by but totally indifferent to the reality of taking lives to keep his own. He’s so interesting because he’s able to step into the front of stage to lead but just as easily slip into the criminal camouflage.
However, the clichés, for the genre, the villains (Russian mobsters), and the love interest of choice (trophy wife of the big boss – Alicia Vikander’s Tasha) come like graceful swings of a battering ram to shake the whole film off of its tracks. One particular scene that took me out of the film to the point of suffocation when the Russian accented henchman decides to teach Tasha a lesson for getting too close to JR. The only way this woman/sex object is able to fend off her attacker is an iron. Why not a frying pan, a vacuum or a crate of tampons? Fortunately despite the battered car, it doesn’t succeed in self-derailment.
Tough action, rough crooks and surprising smarts elevate Son of Gun above the tropes.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Julius Avery
Written by: Julius Avery
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, Jacek Koman, Matt Nable, Tom Budge