Film Review | Son of a Gun

A well-crafted genre piece is always welcome in today's overhyped cinema climate, but this Australian attempt doesn't really deliver on the thrills. 

On the run: Brenton Thwaites and Ewan McGregor (back) fight the law, then themselves, in this Australian crime thriller
On the run: Brenton Thwaites and Ewan McGregor (back) fight the law, then themselves, in this Australian crime thriller

At this point, anything that doesn’t emerge from the cinematic grinder of Hollywood studios is welcome. We’re bombarded with streamlined and expensive comic book adaptations every year, not to mention equally lucrative and easy-to-churn-out adaptations of literary phenomena (see: Fifty Shades of Grey, Hunger Games).

There’s very little wiggle room for genuinely unique projects to peek out of the woodwork. Even then, anything that isn’t directly related to the corporate Hollywood machine is repacked and marketed to maximize its appeal to the ‘hipster’ crowd, or shunted off to the film festival ghetto, never to be seen again save for a small concentrated crowd of film buffs and festival groupies.

But if we’re playing the category game, it has to be said that there’s a space between crass mainstream crowd-pullers and precious but rarely seen arthouse gems. That space belongs to the well-made ‘genre film’.

It’s a contested space, to be sure, but I’m confident that most of you will know it when you see it. A film that delivers the goods without worrying about ticking too many boxes, or casting coiffed and primped superstars and placing them front-and-centre at all times. A film that isn’t too concerned with picking up on ‘trending’ topics and responding to politically correct zeitgeist with an often flawed, knee-jerk dramatization that siphons off too much of its fun factor by chasing its own tail.

A film like this is welcome, but it’s doubtful whether Julius Avery’s Australian thriller Son of a Gun hits the spot on that front, even though it appears more than ready to do just that.

After he’s locked up for a minor crime, JR (Brenton Thwaites) is forced to steel himself against the realities of prison life. Learning that ‘protection’ is a basic necessity for him to survive, he falls under the wing of Australia’s most reviled criminal, Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor).

As ever though, this kind of protection comes at a price, and the deal Lynch sets is a challenging one: JR must help him mastermind his escape plan, after which he is to join Lynch’s gang as they perform a daring gold heist. But as they draw closer to their goal – and as a gangster associate’s daughter, Tasha (Alicia Vikander) is introduced into the already-heady mix – loyalties grow more and more strained, with JR uncertain whether he can trust his old mentor any more.

The film’s first problem is a macro one. This is another sad case of a film that tries to blend more than one mood and genre – gritty thriller with zany comedy – with unsatisfactory results. It’s sad because you can see how the concoction would have worked a treat in more confident hands.

JR’s ordeal in prison is too brief and perfunctory, with sudden bursts of brutality appearing as plot conveniences more than anything else, and the twists and turns of fortune are equally easy and unearned throughout.

The second problem is an ostensibly micro one, and its name is Ewan McGregor. There’s little doubt about McGregor’s pedigree – he’s been around long enough to at least earn some recognition – but his output has been patchy of late, and he just looks bored here.

Michael Fassbender would probably have thrilled to the part of a chess-playing master criminal who apparently strikes instant fear in the heart of the Aussie criminal community. But we’re supposed to buy into his fearsome reputation from the word go, and McGregor just doesn’t cut it – he comes across as a fatigued slob for the most part, and could have easily been swapped with a – cheaper – colleague.

The young ‘uns fare better, with Thwaites and Vikander’s budding romance offering up some charm in a sea of genre morass. But their sub-plot suffers from the same macro problems that beset the film’s overall narrative dynamic (Avery also wrote the screenplay), and is not allowed to develop in a truly fun way.

There are bits that work – the climactic gold heist offers some undeniable thrills, and a recurring debate about our bifurcated evolutionary relationship to either chimps or bonobos is amusing and inspired – but it’s all too slack to really pack a punch.

Genre should have its day, but perhaps you would be better served by checking out the recent output of the Soska Sisters, Adam Wingard or Jim Mickle to scratch that particular itch. 

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