Preoccupied with bodies under threat, but uninterested in either criminal or human motive, Son of a Gun begins with its young protagonist, JR (Brenton Thwaites), in transit. He’s hunched over in an Australian prison transport vehicle, and is quickly menaced by an anonymous inmate on the other side of an iron grate. JR is serving a six-month sentence for an unspecified crime, and Son of a Gun’s 15-minute opening sequence marks that time as a span where lean men without beards are a constant target for prison rape. His cellmate commits suicide after repeatedly being cornered by hulking, tattooed brutes, and he escapes the same fate thanks to the influence of the chess-playing, bearded lifer Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor).
Lynch offers JR a few things he seems to be lacking: a friend, a father figure, and gainful employment in organized crime. In exchange for a future, JR agrees to spring Lynch from prison, in an amusingly novel scheme involving a sightseeing helicopter. Along with some Eastern-European crime heavies, JR and Lynch embark on an operation to steal gold bars from a western Australian mine. But flimsy alliances and the introduction of a love interest, the Russian refugee Tasha (Alicia Vikander), complicate matters. The film has a weird sort of narrative efficiency: The source of its mild tension—is JR’s compliance an act of adoption or a deal with the devil?—is so boilerplate that the script doesn’t bother to address it. It’s equally unconcerned with JR’s backstory or his seeming compulsion toward a life of crime.
JR’s apparent smarts get some dopey foreshadowing, as the character ingratiates himself to Lynch by criticizing one of his chess moves, but director Julius Avery and DP Nigel Bluck dwell on the character’s innocence. He’s seduced by an opulent safe house with a fridge fully stocked with Stella Artois, and two instances of busty women frolicking in pools. When he’s not wearing a new leather jacket around the film’s arid seascapes, he seems to constantly be waking up or putting his shirt on. Every touch that may underline JR’s floundering identity (the kid can’t even swim) only serves to highlight the rudderlessness of Avery’s own drama.
The film has the requisite iconography of a crime thriller (its gruff manner and the ape masks worn during its climactic heist suggest aspirations toward Michael Mann), but no investment in any of it. Its moral code doesn’t extend any further than “Don’t be a rapist,” and its idea of clever is to force JR into the water whenever he’s forced to take agency. Thwaites, with his Ellar Coltrane eyebrows, first-timer’s mustache, and generally dazed air, is a nice physical counterpart to a grizzled, taciturn, and heavily tattooed McGregor. Both deliver quiet, uninspired performances that contrast markedly with the blaring soundtrack and rote badassery associated with their mob collaborators, and there are hints that JR sees a future for himself in Lynch’s esteemed criminal. Any sense that their symbolic kinship will provide the film with some emotional thrust, however, dissolves when JR’s romance with Tasha, cued by a Bon Iver song, becomes a simpler engine to keep the plot moving. As that romance buds, Lynch explains to JR that “all humans come from two kinds of monkeys,” the loving bonobos and the violent apes. It’s up to JR to decide what kind he wants to be. In Son of a Gun’s hopelessly hackneyed universe, this ridiculous binary actually makes sense for a moment.