Snowtown

May 20, 2011
Snowtown

Snowtown would never be first choice for ‘a nice night’s entertainment’ – the humble goal of Barry Humphries’s character, Sandy Stone. Like Sandy and Dame Edna, the characters in Justin Kurzel’s debut feature are creatures of the Australian suburbs, but this is a very, very dark version of that working class idyll.

This controversial film is easy to admire but hard to like. It tells the story of John Bunting, Australia’s worst serial killer, and the psychological hold he exerted on Jamie Vlassakis – played by first-timer, Lucas Pittaway –  a bruised, impressionable teen from a dysfunctional family. The case broke in 1998, when the South Australian police discovered eight dismembered bodies in the vault of a disused bank in Snowtown – a rural community that will be forever stained by that discovery, even though most of the murders were committed in Adelaide.

The film could have quickly degenerated into a gore-fest, a local version of an Italian giallo, complete with sexual violence, animal cruelty, torture and ingenious forms of murder. When one looks into the evidence that came out in the murder trial it appears that Snowtown doesn’t portray even a fraction of the available horrors. For instance, we never learn that some flesh from the final victim was allegedly cooked and eaten. Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento would never have ignored that particular detail.

Of the eleven murders we are shown only one, and that should be sufficient for all but the most deranged sadists. It is so sickening one spends the rest of the film hoping there is no repeat.

Allowing for this single, gruelling sequence, the real horror – and strength – of Snowtown is twofold: as a psychological portrait of a young man drawn into a cycle of murder by a charismatic sociopath; and as a study of the desolation of an Australian underclass.

We watch most of the action unfold through the eyes of Jamie, a blank-faced teenager who lives with his mother, Elizabeth, and two younger brothers. The three boys have been sexually abused by a neighbour, and Jamie himself will be raped by his half-brother, Troy. Elizabeth is a loving mother but a hopeless case.

John Bunting arrives on a motorbike in the middle of the night, moves in with Elizabeth, and acts as a surrogate father for the boys. He cooks decent food, and soon becomes the centre of the family. Almost immediately he reveals his bete noire – pedophiles and homosexuals. He delights in listing the things that he’d like to do to them, asking around for equally brutal suggestions.

The character of Bunting, as played by Daniel Henshall, is truly chilling. Deadpan, always ready with a laugh or a smile, he is capable of the most dispassionate acts of violence. He gives us the creeps the first time we lay eyes on him, and the feeling escalates throughout the film as it becomes apparent that he is less motivated by a hatred of pedophiles, than by a pathological love of torture and murder. His chief accomplice, Robert Wagner, is a cypher, ready to follow wherever Bunting leads.

Bunting has singled out Jamie as his protégé, and draws him in through a mixture of shock tactics, kindness and brutality. Gradually, the teenager grows so desensitized that Bunting’s world-view becomes his reality. We see him fighting against this descent into madness, but ultimately succumbing.

With its grainy look, the intimacy of hand-held camera footage, and mumbled, drawled dialogue, Snowtown gives a vivid impression of life at the bottom. Elizabeth’s house is untidy beyond redemption, filled with the noise of TV and video games. There is no distinction between swearing and talking. The denizens of this environment are equally confronting, notably Barry, the haggard cross-dresser, who becomes one of Bunting’s first victims. Anyone who looks vaguely normal, such as David, the final victim, is an anomaly in this world.

Snowtown is not always easy to follow. The action proceeds as if in a dream, and one struggles to work out the relationships between characters. This wilful vagueness is reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, who is obviously an influence on Kurzel. But where Lynch is brazenly surreal, Kurzel sticks to a form of dirty realism that never lets the viewer off the hook. His camera work makes us feel we are sitting in the room with his characters as they eat – and they are always eating, one ghastly meal after another. Eventually the thought of watching another meal is hardly worse than the prospect of another gorey murder.

Towards the end of the movie the discomfort of being trapped at close-quarters with these people is relieved by a series of strikingly beautiful, Bill Henson-style, shots of the landscape around Snowtown. For a second the pressure is off, but only to let us reflect on the closed, claustrophobic world-within-a-world that the murderers have created. In the heart of the suburbs and the countryside, there lies a bottomless pit of darkness.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, May 20, 2011

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