If there’s one Australian film you see this year, make it Snowtown. Based on Australia’s worst serial killings – the Snowtown Murders – it’s a tense, atmospheric and horrific film that heralds the arrival of writer/director Justin Kurzel.
Set in the mid-nineties, our protagonist is Jamie (Lucas Pittaway); a 16-year-old living in a low socio-economic area in Adelaide, South Australia. He’s a victim in every sense of the word. That is, until he meets the charismatic John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Bunting and his silent sidekick Ray (Craig Coyne) are welcomed into the fold of Jamie’s family and community. He’s a seemingly friendly and father-like figure to Jamie, encouraging him to stand up for himself. Soon though, Jamie begins to see the wild animal beneath the teddy-bear exterior.
At first Bunting just pushes Jamie to join in discussions and gossip around the dinner table where he expresses his hatred for pedophiles and voices his fantasies of violent retaliation. Next he’s teaching Jamie how to intimidate local perverts and gut dead kangaroos. Before long the situation has escalated and Bunting, along with Ray, show Jamie the body of one of their victims. Not to mention their method for disposing of the bodies; submerging them in a barrel of hydrophilic acid and waiting for them to decompose. Initially horrified, it doesn’t take much for Bunting to convince Jaime that what they’re doing is right. They’re riding the world of scum, after all. Nobody’s going to miss these people. Right?
That’s one of the many questions Snowtown asks of you. Evil, like good, isn’t black or white. Bunting proclaims every one of the 12 victims they eventually kill has done something to deserve their slow and grisly deaths. When Jamie’s half-brother is dragged from his bed and handcuffed to the bathtub, there’s certainly a moment when you want this sexually and physical abusive person to be punished. But it’s a fleeting feeling as Bunting, Ray and finally Jamie begin slowly torturing the teen to the point where he’s barley conscious when Bunting holds a tape recorder to his mouth and gets him to leave a farewell message to his mother.
As director, Kurzel doesn’t skirt away from the gorier moments. A toenail being ripped off in a torture scene is given the same amount of attention as a raw, performance-driven scene. Snowtown walks the line between two great Australian cinematic traditions; art house and Ozploitation. It mixes the gritty realism and emotional gravitas of a film like Samson and Delilah, with the violence and suspense of Wolf Creek.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw builds on his atmospheric and moody work in Animal Kingdom, highlighting the exceptional in the everyday with wide, lingering frames and dark interior work. Richard Green as cross-dresser Barry is the only established performer in the ensemble cast and if Snowtown doesn’t launch the career of Henshall then something is seriously wrong. He manages to portray Bunting as a very likable person, to a point, but his seamless shift into psychopath-mode is up there with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. It truly is that good. Pittaway and Louise Harris (who plays his mother Elizabeth) are both revelations, giving loaded and powerful performances.
Snowtown is one of those drama-centered horror films that will plague your sleep, follow you down a dark alleyway and jump out of your wardrobe. Its full impact can only be realized days later when you discover you’re still thinking about it, about the characters, about the murders, about the victims left behind. It’s a slow burn, with Kurzel stacking each card in his filmic arsenal on top of the other until – by the end credits – you think you may emotionally collapse with tension. This is largely helped by his brother Jed Kurzel’s relentless and ingenuous score. Snowtown isn’t a glossy, slick or pop-coloured horror flick. It’s a Polaroid snap taken from within the story of Australia’s most horrific and engrossing serial killings. It ain’t no Kodak moment.