Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris.
Australia has a tradition of making tough, visceral, gritty crime dramas, like the multi-award winning Animal Kingdom, Rowan Woods’ blistering drama The Boys, Chopper. Snowtown is the latest film in this tradition, but rather than a typical study of crime and punishment, this powerfully unsettling film is a study of corruption, evil, hatred and suburban decay.
As the title suggests, Snowtown explores the notorious “bodies in the barrels” murders that occurred in a small South Australian town during the 1990’s. It is a harrowing, disturbingly bleak psychological study of John Bunting (played with chilling authority by Daniel Henshall) and it is sure to be a controversial and challenging experience for audiences. Bunting is regarded as the worst serial killer in Australia’s history, and he wielded an unhealthy influence over Jamie Vlassakis, a naïve and sexually abused teenager who was desperately seeking a father figure.
We mainly see events unfold from Jamie’s perspective, and this brings a creeping sense of dread to the material. Jamie lives with his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) and his two younger brothers on the outskirts of Salisbury North, a suburb north of Adelaide. Then Elizabeth’s new boyfriend John Bunting arrives, and quickly becomes a part of the family. At first friendly, Bunting soon reveals a darker side to his personality when he begins to hold discussions about which local paedophiles and undesirables should be killed.
Thankfully we are spared the gruesome details of most of the murders that follow. Like Animal Kingdom Snowtown is a story of an impressionable and vulnerable teen who is drawn into a world of evil and violence from which it is impossible to escape. However, the material here is much more confronting and dark, and will not be as readily embraced by local audiences. The film has been co-written with Shaun Grant, and is based on two books written about the crimes, extensive research, and actual trial transcripts.
Snowtown is the first feature film from Justin Kurzel, an award winning director who hails from a background in theatre design, music videos and commercials. The film’s grim tone has been heavily influenced by Michael Haneke, that Austrian master of menace who has given us such unnerving psychological thrillers as Funny Games, The White Ribbon, etc. However, one can also detect some David Lynch-like darker touches. But Kurzel stamps it with its own unique style, and he maintains a cold and detached approach to the material.
The cast consists of mainly unknown or non-professional actors who bring their characters to life with an incredible sense of reality, and the performances across the board are all excellent. In particular, Henshall, who hails from a background in theatre and television work, plays Bunting with an astute mix of charisma, charm and chilling ruthlessness. Lucas Pittaway brings a naïve and vulnerable quality to his performance as the impressionable young Jamie.
Part of the film’s strange, bleak beauty is due to the stunning cinematography of Adam Arkapow (who also photographed Animal Kingdom). The early opening scenes capture the harsh landscape and sense of ennui of this small town. Jed Kurzel’s minimalist and discordant score also enhances the mood. However, the major failing of the film lies in the way in which first time filmmaker Kurzel keeps us at a distance, and never really allows us to identify with or connect with the characters, many of whom are only sketchily introduced.
Snowtown is an impressive but flawed achievement from Kurzel, and it is a movie that will not appeal to everyone. Indeed, it is confronting and challenging stuff.
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