Action-packed with prison getaways, bullion heists and criminal double-crossing, Son Of A Gun delivers a high-octane thriller. Just cut the monkey business.
Man Of Steelby Mark Wilshin
There’s no shortage of prison films that’s for sure. And from the Hollywood greats of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to Hunger, A Prophet, R – Hit First Hit Hardest and Starred Up, it’s a ramshackle genre of conflicting ideas – from crime and punishment to freedom and guilt. Some might focus on escape or the innocent crushed by the prison system or the dog-eat-dog fight for survival or the slow descent into a more soul-selling criminality. But there’s something common to all – masculinity. (Even Pablo Trapero’s The Lion’s Den, set in a women’s prison, exists as a reaction to the maleness of the genre.) And nowhere is this more apparent than in Julius Avery’s Son Of A Gun where the characterisations reveal the meagre options – brains, brawn or beauty. It’s a theme that runs throughout the film, dividing mankind into virtually identical but wildly different apes – the aggressive, fighting chimp and the loving but near-extinct bonobo. And if you’re swinging on the wrong side of the law, you’d better work out which one you are. And quick.
19-year-old JR (Brenton Thwaites) is sent to prison for the first time. But his short sentence is under threat – forced to violently defend himself from the unwanted affections of other prisoners on the wing. Quickly eyeing the prison’s top dog – the quiet but controlling Brendan (Ewan McGregor), JR manages to worm his way under his wing – exchanging a few favours on the outside for a mercifully short time inside. And so JR finds himself in a plush pad with a fridge stocked full of beer – a new life on the wrong side of the law but filled with luxury – bought by bringing the plan together that sees Brendan and his boys sprung from jail in a blaze of helicopter blades and machine-gun fire. With Australia’s most wanted on the run, Brendan demands absolute loyalty – planning his retirement with one last heist of a gold mine. But there’s no honour amongst thieves, and as JR becomes entangled with gangster’s moll Tasha (Alicia Vikander) it’s every man for himself.
Entering a high security prison through the wide and terrified eyes of JR, Son Of A Gun makes for a tense prison drama. Its plot hangs rather awkwardly on that old chestnut of prison rape, and it’s the fear of it that controls every inch of JR’s behaviour, sending him on a collision course with the prison’s alpha males and setting him on the path of a life of crime. It’s a strange admission of weakness – begging Brendan and his boys for protection; a want in masculinity that is echoed in the casting of Brenton Thwaites with his long hair (in the opening scenes) and big doe eyes. For despite his intelligence for chess, this handsome stripling seems to have neither the brains nor the brawn to take on Ewan McGregor or his beefy henchmen Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). So it’s all the more surprising that he’s the last one standing – refusing to give up on his new love Tasha and ending up with both the money and the girl.
However, this road to top dog (or journey to adulthood, if you prefer) isn’t all plain sailing. And while Avery’s film starts off well with its tense prison power-play, and even delivers an engaging high-octane heist, Son Of A Gun reaches for the kind of scrappy double-crossing thriller that made Ewan McGregor’s breakthrough Shallow Grave such a success, but falls clumsily on its awkward plotting as each man tries to get the money for himself. A film in three movements, Son Of A Gun is at its best in its taut character dynamics and energetic action sequences, but let down by a messy script which overcooks its primate theme and leaves its monkey business a little raw. (The final clincher hangs dumbfoundingly on the unlikely plot turn of an Australian that can’t swim!) But despite its clichés and flaws, Avery’s film makes for an entertaining yarn nevertheless, bringing vividly and vigorously to life a very Australian life of grime.
Son Of A Gun is released on 30th January 2014 in the UK