This review was originally written for subtitledonline.com.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris
In May 1999 the discovery of eight barrels containing the remains of six people in a disused building in Snowtown began the investigation into Australia’s grizzliest case of serial killings. Just over a decade later comes the cinematic recollection of events from first time director Justin Kurzel. Having already gained several gongs at prestigious film festivals across the world, Snowtown is a candid portrait of the relationship between and murderer Robert Bunting and his manipulated accomplice James Vlassakis.
Living with his mother and two younger brothers, teenager Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) lives an impoverished life in Adelaide, South Australia. One night, his mother hires a babysitter whilst she spends the night at the slot machines. The babysitter goes on to sexually abuses the three boys whilst she is away. When she finds out, she contacts the police, but he is released on bail, with seemingly no justice done.
Quickly after, the mother meets John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) who establishes himself as a father figure, especially towards Jamie as they get revenge on their neighbor by making his life a living hell – eventually forcing him to move out. All seems well, but Bunting harbours radical views against pedophiles, homosexuals, drug users and anybody else he considers human detritus for whatever reason.
Gradually it is revealed that Bunting is murdering people he considers to be degenerates of society. He manipulates Jamie into assisting with the murders and disposing of the bodily remains. As Bunting’s hit list grows ever larger, he choses victims closer to Jamie.
In direct contrast to 2005 Wolf Creek, another Australian horror film tagged with the line ‘based on true events’, Snowtown is every bit the polar opposite. Where Wolf Creek was essentially a conventional horror movie – effectively Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the outback; Justin Kurzel’s directorial debut is a stiflingly candid and intensely clinical portrayal of how one community is slowly manipulated into assisting one psychopath’s lust for violence. It is a film measured in stares and silence more than it is blood and screaming and recounts events with a devastating degree of realism and believability.
The first thing that is apparent about Snowtown is the way in which it juxtaposes the mundane with shocking scenes of violence and sexual abuse. In the first five minutes, you have the family sitting down to dinner discussing which film they are going to watch, the next has shots of the same kids being instructed to pose naked for photographs. Throughout the film, characters are constantly shown eating, a basic and common human need next to the primordial irrational desire to commit violence.
The focus of the film is Jamie Vlassakis played by Lucas Pittaway who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Heath Ledger. As he turns to face the camera naked whilst being photographed by his pedophile babysitter, you just know that events are not going to work out for him. In nearly every capacity, he is a character that is used and manipulated with, never possessing any real control over the horrific events that corrupt his life forever.
In contrast, most characters and events revolve around Bunting. Terrifyingly brought to life by Daniel Henshall. At first he appears affable, a kind smile behind a beard, cooking breakfast for the kids. As the film unwinds we quickly begin to see darker dimensions to his personality, it begins with witnessing his abnormal hatred for homosexuals, his willingness to commit violence against pedophiles, followed by casual dismemberment of a dead kangaroo to decorate the pedophile neighbour’s patio with.
The film is unpleasant to watch for many different reasons. There is only one scene of gratuitous violence however, involving the torture and murder of Jamie’s step-brother. It works to prove the simple point that despite all of Bunting’s so called beliefs about society, his sole motivation for murder is that he gets off on committing violence. A simple but dangerous creature who gets the better of everyone he comes across. We desperately want somebody to stand up to him, but there is absolutely nobody in this story capable of doing so.
Every other murder is implied, a barrel here and there, a frightened voice mail from the victim being forced to explain his/her disappearance. Here and there the bodies fall offscreen, but the film remains focused on the relationship between Bunting and Vlassakis, the former masquerading as a cheery family man, the former hopelessly buckling under the pressure. We already know how it will all end, but whether or not we
One scene says it best of all, when Jamie visits a future victim – a mentally handicapped teenager who owns a pet snake. In a protracted sequence we see the victim feeding a dead mouse to the snake. The snake slowly approaches and after what seems forever it finally attacks. Perhaps clichéd, but an apt analogy for the entire film anyway.
Casual audiences need not apply. Snowtown is a grizzly account of Australia’s most recent senseless act of human atrocities. There is no reason for it to take place but you understand how it happens regardless.