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Son of a Gun | Review

Gunsmoke: Avery’s Able-bodied Debut Dulled by Familiar Tropes

Son of a Gun PosterThe less familiar you are with the dramatic crime genre, perhaps the more engaged you’ll be with Julius Avery’s serviceable directorial debut, Son of a Gun. Nearly every narrative twist and character tic feels lifted from another film, so much so that one would readily believe this to be a direct remake of something, replete with a chess allegory that seems perfectly banal. Yet, Avery’s film is not a direct remake, but rather a mosaic of genre film tropes, which would have been made all the more compelling if it had managed to present vigorously arresting characters. Yet the three main miscreants are merely the types of vagabonds that litter these terrains, negating the passionate bonds we’re supposed to believe whirls them into such dramatic, dire scenarios.

JR (Brenton Thwaites) is a 19 year old criminal sentenced to six months in maximum security prison. Seemingly written off by his own family, JR gravitates towards fellow prisoner and lifer Brendan (Ewan McGregor), a famed robber. Circumstances bring JR under the mentorship of Brendan, whose crew protects him from a band of brutal rapists. But in return, upon his release, JR must agree to help bust Brendan out of prison in an elaborate scheme orchestrated by criminal kingpin Sam (Jacek Koman), as well as take part in a daring heist involving stealing millions worth of gold. As they develop a father-son bond, JR finds himself falling for a Russian prostitute, Tasha (Alicia Vikander), who is owned by the jealous and manipulative Sam. But as her relationship with JR deepens, they realize they may be able to help each other out of an increasingly dangerous situation.

Right away, Avery establishes a grating chess analogy in Son of a Gun, used with heavy handed glee and at every available opportunity. JR introduces himself to Brendan via advice on a chess move, and forever after we’re left to ponder their developing bond as a series of manipulative moves, specifically on the part of criminal mastermind Brendan.

It’s certainly a welcome change of pace to see the generally affable McGregor take on the role of hardened criminal, but he’s not quite as edgy or dangerous as the role calls for. Furthermore his relationship with JR isn’t developed believably (though, to be fair, there is a minor twist), yet perhaps this is due to the rather lackluster Thwaites, an up and coming star who has been featured in a variety of notable films over the past year. JR is meant to have a soft side, as evidenced by his ability to gain trust and generate compliance via gentility rather than violent force. Yet it’s hard to buy Thwaites, who often seems more bright and alert than the many mistakes his character makes.

More distracting is the Swedish Alicia Vikander as an indentured servant hooker from somewhere on the Eastern Block, depending on what kind of accent you believe her to be going for. Just as the bond between JR and Brendan is a taken for granted, so is the romance here between JR and Tasha, who often looks believably harried in a drowned, harassed rat sort of way but every line makes one wish Avery had just hired a woman from the region Tasha is supposed to be from.

A mixture of prison break, heist, and romantic drama, Son of a Gun tries for a lot of elements, but isn’t quite strong on any one front. Production value is high and the film sports a killer soundtrack, including an interesting (if ultimately meaningless) use of The Presets’ “Pretty Little Eyes.”


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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