Monday, October 9, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #14. "Son of a Gun" (2014)

Scene from Son of a Gun
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Son of a Gun
Released: October 16, 2014
Release Number: 14
Directed By: Julius Avery
Written By: Julius Avery (Screenplay), John Collee (Additional Material)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander
Plot: JR busts out of prison with Brendan Lynch, Australia's most notorious criminal, and joins Lynch's gang for a gold heist that soon pits the two men against one another.

As seen with Tusk, A24 was willing to do experimental movies with established filmmakers. However, 2014 was also showing their willingness to work with newer names that hadn't yet established themselves. Julius Avery wasn't necessarily a newbie to the game of directing, but his career had stalled several times before the release of his feature length debut Son of a Gun. With many other screenplay options and board meetings, it took a lot of effort for him to even shoot the film. With the help of Ewan McGregor, he brought the prison-break drama to life and started off his career with an intensity that was unfortunately matched with middling box office and served as another entry in the lackluster releases from a studio who had and will do great work again. For now, it was the start of a promising career in Avery, which was good enough.

While Son of a Gun came out in 2014, Avery had been making shorts since 2002 with Matchbox. Six years later, he would be taking his short Jerrycan to the Cannes Film Festival. It was here that he won a Jury Prize. With an honor like this, he figured that feature length movies weren't too far behind. As he quickly discovered, this meant that he was going to meetings to try and pitch movies with little success. 2008 was also the year of the financial crisis, which made gambling on Avery's idealized budget (middle range movies) a bit more problematic. As a result, he kept stalling with a screenplay that was "Romper Stomper in the bush." He believed that it was the most successful script of the few he was pitching to studios. 

It took the wisdom of an established screenwriter to get him to the next stage. While the aforementioned screenplay didn't sell, what would become Son of a Gun did thanks to Happy Feet screenwriter John Collee. He gave Avery tips on how to make the story more accessible for general audiences. One of Avery's concerns was that every successful Australian writer moved to America to work for studios, meaning he wrote the screenplay by himself based around his own life, which was based around a relationship with a "Fagin"-like father figure. However, he gave Collee credit for providing "additional material." Once he realized that he couldn't get the film made without a selling point/big name actor, he wrote a letter to Ewan McGregor, whom he imagined would be right for the role. By some luck, the actor accepted the role that Avery felt gave him a nice dynamic. From there, the film was officially in production.

Avery started his career with photography because he loved the intensity. The film was shot in Australia in February of 2013. It's what drew him to directing movies. While he was less secure by what he wrote on the page, he believed that he could edit it to make the type of story he wanted visually. He was a big fan of Michael Mann films, choosing to focus around the relationship of the male characters. He also included a Mann reference in the film when he had actor Brenton Thwaites carry around a poster featuring Thief's James Caan.  Thwaites claimed that he also interviewed a former prisoner in order to better understand his mentality. The film also featured a unique genre of music called happy hardcore, which was popular at the time in Australia.

The film was bought by A24 and DirecTV, who premiered the film on their service. The film also played at Cinefest Oz Fest and London Film Festival. The film's box office was especially low, not even earning $2,000. However, its general buzz proved to be positive. On critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film earned a 63% rating. Trevor Johnston of Time Out wrote that "It's all put together with a crisp confidence that suggests its writer-director will swiftly move on to bigger things." Scout Tafoya also claimed that "It's a little heavy on incident, and a little light on soul." Still, the film wasn't without its detractors, including Gary Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times who claimed that the film "is a derivative crime thriller that sputters when it should propel, skims when it should probe." Even the more positive reviews proved to be critical of the film, which suggested the film's overall perceived mediocrity.

Avery has taken time with his next film, but he is set to release Overlord sometime next year. Still, for a filmmaker who had great promise early on, his curious many years-long absences both reflects the timidity of movie studios as well as A24's desire to take risks. Even if Son of a Gun wasn't widely perceived as a hit (much like fellow A24 Australian film The Rover, it was modest at best), it was reflective of a studio still trying to find its voice. Much like its choice to take risks with Australian crime thrillers, their next film would try and play with classic Asian cinema in ways that were unexpected. With a producer credit from the legendary Martin Scorsese, Revenge of the Green Dragons had all of the right tools to be a modest hit. The only question was how much of a hit it would actually be.

Up Next:  Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014)

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