One of the most exciting movements in cinema in the last decade or two or so has come from Australia. Mostly (but not exclusively) tied to the production company Blue Tongue Films (which includes luminaries like Joel Edgerton, David Michod, and Spencer Susser), but also encompassing experienced figures like Andrew Dominik, Cate Shortland, Julia Leigh, Justin Kurzel, and John Hillcoat, the films are loosely tied together by the simple mark of quality, with great movies like “Animal Kingdom,” “Snowtown Murders,” “The Proposition” “Somersault,” and “Chopper” emerging from the land down under since the dawn of the 21st century.
Could the next name to join them be Julius Avery? The director won the Jury Prize at Cannes for his short “Jerrycan,” and now makes his directorial debut with crime thriller “Son Of A Gun,” which has managed to attract an A-list star and two of the business’ busiest, fastest-rising young actors to appear. Hopes were high when the film made its premiere in competition at the BFI London Film Festival this week, but while it’s watchable enough, it’s hardly to be spoken of in the same tones as some of its predecessors.
The film opens with 19-year-old JR (Brenton Thwaites, from “The Signal,” “The Giver,” and “Maleficent“) beginning a six-month prison sentence for an unknown crime. Model-pretty and clearly troubled, he becomes a target for the prison rapists, but is offered protection by armed-robber Brendan (Ewan McGregor). But that protection comes at a price: when JR gets out, Brendan, who’s serving a 20-year sentence, wants his help busting out.
Their bold and elaborate scheme pays off, and soon Brendan is taking JR under his wing in a semi-fatherly manner. The thief’s patron, Russian mobster Sam (Jacek Koman from “Top Of The Lake“), has another job lined up, stealing $4 million worth of gold bars from a smelting plant. But Sam doesn’t seem especially trustworthy, and JR’s burgeoning relationship with Tasha (Alicia Vikander), a woman with ties to the crime boss, threatens to cause problems between the young buck and his experienced mentor.
If you’re looking at the plot synopsis above and thinking that it all sounds like it’s been sourced from some kind of Random Crime Plot Generator, you’re right on the money. Aside from a seaside Aussie setting, and a nifty moment or two, there’s nothing in Avery’s film that hasn’t been done a million times before. That’s not always a problem. “Starred Up” (which this bears an initial surface similarity to in the early going) moved mostly within familiar genre tropes, but managed to dig deeper into them, and in places subvert them, with terrific results.
The same can’t really be said here, as the film hits every expected beat, and every predicted double-cross, like clockwork. The only unpredictable element (unless you’ve never seen a crime movie before) comes from the tone. Avery can’t commit to whether he’s making a gritty “Animal Kingdom”-style crime picture, or a light caper film, and the final result is wonky in the extreme, particularly in the conclusion, which feels particularly muddled.
The stellar cast that the director assembled is also something of a mixed blessing. Thwaites broods solidly without ever being especially charming, but does have a vulnerability that serves him well. Vikander, as per usual, is the best thing in the film, finding nuance and warmth in a deeply cliched archetype. It’s a performance worlds away from the one we saw her give in “Testament Of Youth” a few days ago, and it’s hard to believe that it came from the same person.
But it’s McGregor who, unfortunately, proves problematic. “Tough guy bank robber” is not the kind of role you’d immediately slot him into, but we were intrigued to see him play against type. Unfortunately, there’s a reason that the star (who uses his own Scottish accent, rather than an Australian one) doesn’t get this kind of role often—he’s not well suited to it. At first, there’s an interesting perversity in the casting. Can this soft spoken Scot really be such a feared figure? The answer is no, with McGregor’s boyish grin too often softening him. You simply don’t believe the character, and that’s close to fatal to the movie.
That said, “Son Of A Gun” is engaging for most of its running time. Avery keeps the pace rattling along nicely, and has a lot of fun with the action sequences, which are sharp and well-cut. There’s every reason to think that he’ll go on to better things. And it’s not like “Son Of A Gun” is ever especially bad, it’s just never good either. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, especially if you’re a fan of its Australian crime predecessors, but the film’s forgotten almost as soon as the credits roll. [C]