From the go, we are engrossed by action. Son of a Gun provides high-quality, stimulating entertainment and encapsulates everything that a decent thriller should be. The film is loaded with enigmatic characters, a wonderfully constant state of anarchy and compelling power play between its key antagonists in an Australian Michael-Mann-style confrontation. The film also chronicles a poignant love story which steers clear of overcomplexity. All of this is finished off with some astounding sound-mixing and a strangely affecting soundtrack of exquisite entries such as a masterly remixed track of Bon Iver's "Perth" and the moving "Enter One" by Sol Seppy. Whilst not a distinct departure from classic crime flicks, the feature demonstrates competence on every scale from its consistently absorbing narrative arc to the effortless execution of every role. Son of a Gun is a confident debut feature by director Julius Avery who does well to avoid the trappings of the archetypal Aussie thriller.
Son of a Gun's leading light is the young 19-year-old delinquent JR (Brenton Thwaites) of an ambiguous, unconfirmed history. As he arrives at a high-security prison for the first time, he comes in contact with Australia's public enemy No. 1, Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor). Soon enough, in desperate need of protection within the walls of brutal confinement, he becomes Brendan's protégé. When JR is released is six months later, he begins to pay his extensive debts and is quickly involved with organised crime of the highest order, from heists to prison breaks.
What advances Son of a Gun into genuine heart-quickening territory is the startling moral ambiguity that plagues many of the characters. The higher authority crime figures emanate a threatening potency and fervent unpredictability of their behaviour. These constant feelings of danger and insecurity are shared in a curiously vicarious manner between the audience and young JR. The film also posits odd flourishes of visual splendour, amongst the largely banal and stark shots, with some stunning landscape frames. The various criminal escapades captured in the film are classically extravagant, invigorating sequences of rapid gunfire, helicopters, car chases and pursuits on foot. These scenes are forwarded by the accomplished sound-mixing of Jed Kurzel, whose contributions here and to other recent films (The Babadook, All This Mayhem) easily place him at the forefront of music for the Australian film industry.
Although the star attraction of the film no doubt comes in the form of Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer, Moulin Rouge!), the sheer quality of the performances supplied by the younger cast must be recognised. Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) plays strong and convincing in his lead role of an vulnerable, naïve and impressionable youngster. This feature shows Thwaites to have mastered the balance between endearing, congenial hero and an actually tenable being. He is quick to harness in the audience and have them rooting for his survival. But it is scene-stealing Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina, A Royal Affair) whom emerges as a quietly surprising talent. Vikander's performance transcends depth and mystery to a character who could have easily been played as a mere, insignificant caricature with her limited screen time.
Prisons have been a popular choice of setting for Aussie flicks this year with the focus on a minimum-security rural prison in Healing and a stint of the title character in a Darwin prison in Charlie's Country. Each of these portrayals have been bleak, startlingly realistic illustrations of Australian detention centres but Son of a Gun easily provides the bleakest and the most violent. Beyond its entertainment value, the feature draws significant attention to national crime culture and portrays the easy demise into a world of constant jeopardy. Ultimately, the feature, whilst not overly ambitious nor revelatory, identifies as a slick thriller of continuous exhilaration with odd moments of credible emotion and intrigue.