The opening sequence of writer-director Julius Avery’s début film Son of a Gun is promising. We follow a young criminal, JR (Brendan Thwaites), embarking on a six-month stint in a Western Australian prison for an unknown crime while the camera cross-cuts between the subject and the inmates. Avery’s camera-work suggests that Thwaites is a different kind of prisoner from the archetypal convict. A suggestion that is reinforced when JR attracts the attention of chess-playing inmate Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) by showing off his own chess-skills.
In the world of chess Thwaites is three steps ahead but in the prison world he is three steps behind as he becomes the object of affection for a group of thugs. McGregor offers his protection in exchange for JR’s help to get him on the outside. What follows is a narrative that delves into a criminal underworld full of prison breaks and heists with a smattering of metaphors thrown in for good measure.
“Things are not as you imagine” is a line that runs throughout the film along with references to chess metaphors that intimate the pawn piece is indeed the sacrificial lamb. The figurative dialogue is essentially leading to the final revelation but it is made obsolete by the continual shift in tone. Like many of the elements in Avery’s film the character of JR is not consistent with the character we see in the beginning. The misunderstood intellectual who uses logic to foresee his opponent’s next move transforms into a boy who cannot eat with chopsticks, swim or listen to good reason. The camera attempts to evoke an emotional connection from the audience by giving us a number of close-ups of Thwaites silently brooding. Instead, he comes across as vacuous to the point that his romantic relationship with the crime lord’s (Jacek Koman) female trophy (Alicia Vikander) is meaningless.
Avery tries but ultimately fails to give his film visceral substance. Son of a Gun is at its best in the understated violent scenes with McGregor. Yet Avery is quick to reign them in so McGregor is never pushed too far. He never appears too dangerous. We never quite understand who this notorious criminal is in the same way we never understand what Avery wants to achieve. Although the film is technically impressive, particularly in the robbery scenes, it relies too heavily on formulaic plots to drive the story. The gritty realism that has come to define the Australian crime movie at times shines through but its appearance is too short to make an impact. Son of a Gun is sadly more Hollywood heist than Animal Kingdom.
Son of a Gun is due for release on 30 January 2015