Julius Avery’s Son Of A Gun may fall into the broad category of “crime thriller” but it’s not a neat fit: Julius Avery’s first feature evokes genre pieces as diverse as Starred Up, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, and Drive.
Newly arrived in a maximum security prison, 19-year-old J.R. (Brenton Thwaites) quickly finds himself at the attention of exactly the sort of inmates you don’t want to fall in with in a prison drama. It takes the intervention of a notorious con, Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor), to save his life. Lynch is clearly feared and respected but, not particularly burly or obviously psychotic, it’s not entirely clear why. It’s also not clear exactly why Lynch has taken to J.R., saved their shared interest in chess.
This question underlines Son Of A Gun’s opening act. Once on the outside, J.R. finds himself set up with a plush apartment, plenty of cash, and a suitcase full of false passports and a gun.
One prison break later – an A-Team-lite affair involving a helicopter – and Lynch is on the loose with J.R. in tow. It’s at this point the film’s narrative breaks down into different genre strands: there’s the most sun-bleached heist since Heat, a neo-noirish forbidden romance with Tasha (the recently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander); Son Of A Gun transitions from one to the other in fluid, semi-naturalistic style.
One scene a character struggles to survive a brutally realistic assault; a couple later a henchman is nonchalantly eating a choc ice while sat on a freezer containing an unfortunate Russian mobster. The film never sets out to reconcile these tonal shifts and acquires a rough-and-ready charm because of it.
Thwaites is convincing as the dark-eyed, diffident yet quick-to-anger J.R., never quite at home in Lynch’s world but with nowhere else to go. The very Scottish Lynch, meanwhile, shrewd and wiry, prone to casual violence and with an ever-shifting code of honor, is pure anti-hero, though he’s kept relatively on the sidelines till the final act.
The film gets too caught up in its genre trappings, failing to explore or define the nature of the relationship between the two men at its heart. With nothing to wrap up on this front, Son Of A Gun ends with a compact series of denouement – twist, double twist – that desperately try to wrap up every thematic moment of the preceding ninety minutes.
Avery’s direction is tight, efficient, and quietly savvy, but the film is mostly content to be as a well-made but slightly threadbare rehash. A solid debut but nothing that’ll be missed in the avalanche of award’s-season releases.