Runtime: 120 mins
Directors: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Craig Coyne, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, and Lucas Pittaway
Snowtown is a look at the life of serial killer John Bunting and the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ case in a South Australian town between 1992-1999. Not running from a challenge for his first feature film, director Justin Kurzel has picked a dark cross-genre story about the loss of innocence that reflects Australia’s recent fascination with true crime coming to the big and small screen.
Snowtown is an immersing experience for the audience, and engaging from the opening scene, set in the outer northern suburbs of Adelaide where the real murders took place. We follow the plight of 16-year-old character Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittway), who lives with his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris), two kid brothers, plus one older stepbrother. Jamie longs for an escape from the hopelessness that surrounds him in the disenfranchised town he lives, and his salvation arrives in the form of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), a charismatic bearded man with a constant grin who unexpectedly appears to be at Jamie’s aid. Here begins the plot of Snowtown, Jamie falls under the dangerous influence of John who turns out to be much more murderer than meets the eye.
The set-up of the story and characters is a little confusing at first, with the on-screen relationships difficult to track, yet this only seems to add to the madness of the true story being depicted rather than detract heavily from the film. Snowtown is one part gritty social-realism, one part thriller and all parts gruesome and often un-watchably violent. The film is drenched with chillingly stomach-turning events (chilling event number 1 – whilst on a date, unhappy Elizabeth accepts the offer of a babysitter who then sexually molests her children at their house). This somehow leads to a new man moving in with Jamie and his mother. This is John, who takes it upon himself to act in driving this paedophile out of the community and influences Jamie and his brothers to help (chilling event number 2 – somehow through splattering this perverts porch with dismembered animal corpses, Jamie and John grow closer).
John insists on becoming the patriarch of Jamie’s family, hosting boozy evenings at Elizabeth’s house, with conversations around protecting the community from pedophile’s, homosexuals, drug-takers and anyone else he doesn’t like. It all starts to get serious when John begins plotting murders, erecting a giant target board with arrows and photographs (chilling and down-right creepy event number 3!). The emotional status of this somewhat glum community is reflected as John is posited as a person to look up too.
The mind of a serial killer is a strange and disconcerting place, and often there is some sense of justification for why they commit such horrific acts. Daniel Henshall does a terrific job portraying this unsettling characteristic through the strange dysfunctional quasi father-son relationship he develops with Jamie. John moves from the role of Jamie’s protector to that of a mentor, indoctrinating Jamie into his world, a world brimming with bigotry, righteousness and malice. Like a son mimicking his father, Jamie soon begins to take on some of John’s traits and beliefs as he spends more and more time with him and his select group of friends. One scene where John gets Jamie to shoot a gun for his first time and forces him to kill the dog without flinching is incredibly hard to watch because of the realism and perturbing emotional display between the characters, which is remarkably calm in light of the morally wicked situation.
It’s in scenes like this one described above that Snowtown really draws an emotional response. The plain gruesome horror and shock scenes are easy to feel repulsed by, but it’s the scenes where the loss of Jamie’s innocence is highlighted that become most unsettling. Lucas Pittaway gives an outstanding and very real performance as Jamie, evocative of Edward Furlong’s character in American History X.
What saves Snowtown from being tasteless like other gruesome Australian movies such as Saw or Wolf Creek, is the fact that it never glorifies the characters, and furthermore doesn’t try to lighten the subject with the typical Australian humour which is present in many Australian movies. The film has a more art house/documentary feel with washed out look that drives home the reality and bleakness of the story without much flowery.
So in short, Snowtown is a depressing, brutal and hyper-real bogan story about manipulation, the loss of innocence and gruesome crimes, which possibly teaches us something about not putting your faith in the wrong people? Peachy stuff (not really), but a great Australian film that gets 4/5.