A nineteen-year-old boy called JR (Brenton Thwaites) is sent to prison in Western Australia for a minor crime. He keeps to himself at first, but when he tries to intervene to save his cellmate from other prisoners, he becomes the focus of their attentions. Fortunately, notorious armed robber Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) steps in and protects JR. The price for Brendan’s help is that JR is now part of his gang. This continues on the outside, too. The moment Brendan and the gang hit Perth they become part of a big heist. Their partner on the outside is a criminal boss named Sam (Jacek Koman). JR falls for Sam’s woman, a Russian waitress Tasha, who works in his strip club. The scene is set for misunderstanding and doublecross.
SON OF A GUN starts off grimly. The first half hour fits in firmly with the prison movie genre. We fear for the safety of the seemingly innocent JR. He has guts, but no ability to fight, nor pick his battles. Brendan’s protection saves JR’s life and from this point Brendan expects nothing but unconditional loyalty from the boy. Brendan is a mentor and a father figure. JR has materialistic dreams that were formed by a harsh upbringing with no money. Brendan is his ticket to a shiny gangster life. The only obstacle is JR’s scruples.
JR carries a sort of collage of his dreams in his wallet. This pocket moodboard handily removes the need for a sappy speech and lets us know that at base, JR wants a stable, loving family as well as fast cars, a big house and money. JR’s journey is less like Henry Hill’s in GOODFELLAS and has more in common with J’s in ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010). He’s not tough, nor experienced. However we learn that he does have a certain amount of cleverness hidden away.
SON OF A GUN is a crime picture with a father/son story running through its core. JR’s father-figure Brendan can give him a new life, but may also be his undoing. No one has ever helped JR before, let alone protected him, so isn’t he obliged to give Brendan his loyalty? This is the problem he has to deal with while he pursues some kind of connection with Tasha. In this, as in all things, JR is an innocent or he would probably avoid having anything to do with her. She is attracted to him precisely because he isn’t like the gangsters that are part of her life with Sam.
Thwaites is an up and coming actor; he has had parts in a number of international films recently, including THE GIVER. He is solid here in his role as “newbie crim”. McGregor provides the necessary charisma and menace as Brendan. Swedish actor Alicia Vikander makes an impression as the smart and desperate Tasha.
Once the movie changes gear from prison film to crime caper, it picks up pace. The shift is slightly bumpy because it’s a move from realism to genre thrills and action. Writer-Director Julius Avery keeps the unfolding story speeding along and the audience is happy to go for the ride. The Western Australian locations are used well and the shoot-em-up, handbrake-turning, car chase bits are fun. The resulting 108 minutes is entertaining and pretty much the opposite of the sort of slow-burn, Australian arthouse film some critics say we make too often.
SON OF A GUN is in Australian cinemas now. I give it a 6/10.
Listen to our Son of A Gun interview with Brenton Thwaites.