New ground doesn’t have to be broken on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s ok to give the wheel a damn good polish rather than attempting to reinvent it. Son of a Gun, the debut feature from Australian director/writer Julius Avery, cleaves closely to well-worn conventions and is no worse for it. A prison drama and heist thriller wrapped into one insidious father/son relationship, it proves a remarkably effective experience.
Avery opens on the way to a maximum security institute. Inside the van, floppy haired JR (Brenton Thwaites) sits apprehensively as brutish thugs around him try to get a rise. Stripped, searched, shorn and dumped into an environment where a pretty young man is always going to be a welcome commodity for unwelcome types, things aren’t looking up. And then he meets hardened con Brendan (Ewan McGregor) who saves him and traps him in equal measure, leading them into an elaborate prison break and gold heist.
It’s this bond that makes the heart of Son of a Gun beat faster. JR has no time for his own father, pointing derisively to the physical reminder of their last encounter. He affects a cool disengaged stare but it doesn’t hide a desperation for guidance that burns in Thwaites’ deep gaze. For him, many of their adventures are simply over-amped family outings. He gets presents in the form of wads of cash and heavy weaponry, visits to the (gold mining) country, and more importantly a sense of purpose.
Standing opposite is McGregor’s Brendan. There’s a wonderfully grizzled feel to his performance seeped in sinister grins, sweat stained prison clothes and the burning Australian sun. He wants to use JR but in his own way, he’s seeking a bond even as he seeks to deny one. His is a world of tough men. Women have no place, and when Tasha (Alicia Vikander) does appear he spits invective in her direction to sway JR away. This is the business of men in all its grimy, emotionally stunted glory.
Characters aren’t the only draw here. Avery shows a sure touch for action whipping through his story at a confident pace. In prison he shoots with tight close-ups that exaggerate spasms of extreme violence. When the canvas broadens, the camera pulls back to revel in car chases, helicopter assaults and a full circuit of double crossing.
The heavily male focus brings about the film’s weakest part. The romance between JR and Tasha fails to convince. She cuts an attractive figure, fragile and bold in equal parts, but it feels like a bolted on extension to an otherwise sleek and sinewy plot. Their time together brings awkward musical choices and even a clichéd shot as they search for each other on a train. Everything else is so relentlessly masculine that these scenes sit muted while the fun goes on all around.
This proves no more than a brief distraction in the end. Pumped up action moored securely to a well-rounded central relationship helps make Son of a Gun one hell of a debut. Whatever Avery does next, he’s just set the bar high. Don’t bet against him clearing it again.