Australian films are reaching international shores more frequently these days, no doubt due to the ease and popularity of the video on demand platform. A couple of months ago there was the apocalyptic film These Final Hours and the vampire film What We Do In The Shadows, a few weeks ago Ethan Hawke’s trippy time travel thriller Predestination, and now a Ewan McGregor gangster picture called Son Of A Gun. I’m all for proliferation, provided the quantity is meted out with quality, but video on demand being what it is, the great equalizer, that’s not always the case, and sadly Son Of A Gun falls in line with countless other direct-to-video heist film knockoffs that still plague the budget bins of used video stores.
The main problem with Son Of A Gun is the novelty of McGregor as a criminal mastermind is the film’s only original element. It starts out as a prison drama, on young JR’s (Brenton Thwaites) first day as an inmate and almost immediately sets about establishing the token cliques, from Brendan’s (McGregor) gang of no-nonsense thugs to the rapists, wasting no time emulating HBO’s fifteen-year-old Oz, only without the urgency. JR flashes Brendan a moment of brilliance when he deciphers a complicated chess move, and Brendan sees an opportunity to keep JR safe from the rapists in exchange for helping him bust out of prison after he completes his short time. Once on the outside Son Of A Gun devolves even further into a typical heist picture, a wannabe Michael Mann film, complete with Brendan as mentor, JR as student, and brace yourselves, a woman (Alicia Vikander) coming between them and upsetting the delicate balance that zero trust usually encourages.
Julius Avery’s direction is competent, no doubt from his extensive experience making shorts, but the film cannot rise above his own pedestrian screenplay that only exists because he’s seen those same plot points in other, much better films. It’s impossible to get involved with the characters when they are just killing time until the next expected landmark, and it doesn’t help that Thwaites and McGregor have no chemistry in their scenes together. Everything is so manufactured it’s easy to see how Avery might have started with a gangster film template and then just filled in the blanks with his characters. How else to explain the token scene where Vikander walks in on McGregor telling Thwaites to pay her off, causing her to run screaming from the room all sad and deflated. The gangster template might call for a scene where the WOMAN stops trusting the HERO, but nothing about this scene is believable, because for one nobody involved comes across as a real person, and two we haven’t been given any establishing scenes that would cause her to so easily misconstrue what was happening, or at the very least not wait five seconds to hear JR’s reply to Brendan.
Son Of A Gun is full of scenes just like that. It is a paint-by-numbers thriller if ever there was one, so safe and unwilling to create lasting meaningful characters, content to just skate by on stereotypes and hollow shells of much greater, more realized characters. Although it’s not aggressively bad enough to fail as a time waster, Avery is unable to distinguish it from the countless other films just like it, and there are so many better ways to waste time.
The Verdict: Pan