dir: Justin Kurzel
Snowtown is a horrifying, crippling, debilitating trawl through a true blue Ozzie True Crime story, being the murders of 11 poor bastards in South Australia way back in the 1990s. Only one of the poor victims were killed in Snowtown, or had anything to do with Snowtown, but the name stuck so powerfully that even the people who live there wanted to change the town’s name at the peak of the public’s interest in this depressing story.
Unlike Animal Kingdom, which a flick like this will be inevitably compared to, this isn’t a stylised, fictionalised version of events. I mean, it’s still fiction, it’s not a documentary. What I mean is, it’s something almost along the lines of a feature length re-enactment, in all its banal, ugly detail, and with certainly no glory.
The eye for detail, though, isn’t focussed on replicating everything to give us all the factual minutiae. It’s more focussed on giving us an inkling as to what happened, how it may have felt to be involved, and just how awful it was.
In which case, it functions less as a True Crime kind of film. Its purpose isn’t delivering information on the empirical level. It’s about getting us to feel an overwhelming dread pervading everything.
Every story needs an entry point, not just a beginning. Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is our gateway into this unbearable story. And what a gateway. We watch how the physical and emotional circumstances of a person’s life, and the grooming of a sociopath, can lead someone into becoming a person who murders for pleasure.
They, the director and filmmakers, want us to see the world these people lived in before the crimes themselves happened. So before they even bother to horrify us with the crimes, they depress us with the ugliness of their living circumstances.
I don’t know if they filmed this flick at the relevant, actual locations, but whatever bit of South Australia they found, things still look pretty grim in that public housing twenty years after the fact. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure the actual buildings have been torn down. However close to Salisbury North this was filmed, it looks like a slightly more economically depressed Detroit, so let’s just say this isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing flick, unless you’re a sadist, of course.
The mother of some young boys has a relationship with the man across the road, and leaves them in his care, so she can go play the pokies for a relaxing evening. The man is a child molester, unbeknownst to her and the boys.
This wouldn’t seem to be relevant, but when the mother soon has a new man in her life, being John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), his first task is to drive the man away through harassment and parts of decomposing animal corpses. John seems like a tough nut bent on making the neighbour’s life hell (and who could blame him?), but he seems pleasant enough. He starts bonding with her sons, especially Jamie, through involving them in the pedo’s torments.
When the neighbour moves away, you’d think that these people could breathe a collective sigh of relief and go on with their sub-working class lives. For John, though, this is just the start of his noble, holy crusade.
At drinking sessions with all sorts of dregs/friends from the local community, John tries to rile people up, urging them to agree that something should be done about all these gays, rock spiders and kiddie fiddlers. Something should be done, because it’s not going to be the police that do anything about it, agree his teeth-deficient friends.
And John, and his closer friends, some of whom are gay, which makes it even more confusing, do start doing something about it, all while being gazed upon adoringly by Jamie and his brothers, who’ve seemingly lacked for a strong, consistent father figure in their lives thus far. How lucky for them that it’s all about to change.
We never see the kids going to or returning from school. They all live and sleep in the lounge room, playing games on a Sega Genesis (so you know how poor they are) or endlessly watching terrible television shows like the Comedy Company, and though there’s no shortage of food, it’s generally of the rapidly heated up from the can or of the ‘two minute’ variety of sustenance.
A lot of it is unspoken. A lot of these people don’t look like actors. Almost everything that happens is meant to occur in a naturalistic way. Perhaps too naturalistic. I’m trying to say something as diplomatically as I can: apart from the incredible actor who plays John Bunting, and maybe Jamie, everyone else looks like they were plucked from out the front of a community health place or a TAB, many of whom have argued something in front of a judge at some point in their lives.
We never have any of the characters, no matter how much they look wasted or destroyed by life, articulate the poverty and chronic unemployment they live in. They look, without ever needing to tell us, completely left behind by the rest of society. Everything around them is so grim, grimy and grungy that I needed to wash my eyes with vodka afterwards. The memory of staying at places this awful, of living like that for a couple of years, scared the hell out of me even worse than most of the scenes of violence in the flick.
Adding to Jamie’s problems is the violent sexual attentions of an older, potentially retarded half-brother called Troy who also lives with them in the house, and whom we see rape Jamie. As if there wasn’t enough horror already… As if there wasn’t enough horror to come…
Jamie is a difficult character to like, even if he has an angelic face that projects innocence along with teen disaffection. He, like the unfortunate protagonist of Animal Kingdom, is a passive observer for most of his own story, but he conveys a lot through little. Even if it just comes down to facial expressions and body language, he does a good job getting over just how awful his circumstances are. Also, the longing for fatherly love, the hurt when he’s rejected, the jealousy when John has a new favourite, all of this comes across with a quiet aching.
John has a plan, but for reasons we’re never privy to, since we never really get an insight into the man, he wants Jamie involved. In the beginning it’s framed as trying to perform some kind of service to society, by being forthright enough to do what needs to be done to protect, presumably, The Children. But these people aren’t righteous vigilantes, we know that right from the start. If we have any doubts, in a flick that already had some hard to stomach scenes, including the dismemberment of dead kangaroos and people being murdered by John just because he doesn’t like them, the murder we are forced to watch has to be one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.
John urges his partner in crime to strangle someone, and stop, and start, and stop, as he focuses intently on the expression on the person’s mutilated face as they are dying by degrees. It’s so horrible to see and contemplate that even Jamie, a kid that should have been a harmless kid, that should never have been in any of the circumstances that arise in this story, feels compelled to act.
This is true horror, not true crime. This is an attempt, an artistic attempt to get us to see what people were not just capable of, but actually did. The whys become irrelevant, the aftermath superfluous, and the how of it is held up just to give us a sense of what incredible darkness people are capable of.
There are no witty lines, there’s no redemption or insight into the souls of monsters, there’s no appeal to a higher authority, or some philosophical appeal to a rationale. These people tortured and murdered a bunch of people because they enjoyed it. There are no excuses offered, no sociological arguments made or accepted, no justifications. Evil perpetuates evil, and Jamie, and his brothers, and all the other victims, some of whom were friends and family, never stood a chance.
Daniel Henshall’s performance as John Bunting is a work of art in and of itself. Quite often, he’s shown smiling warmly, embracing the kids affectionately, or eating many a meal with gusto. When his dark eyes go glassy, and impenetrable, and we see the real monster that lives behind the chubby, harmless exterior, well, it’s kind of terrifying. I have no idea if he looks or acted anything like the real John Bunting, and I have no desire to ever find out. He knows when to use restraint, and when to just be unholy, and I’d be scared if I ever bumped into him on the street, day or night.
The director certainly exercises similar restraint much of the time, which makes those scenes of extreme violence even harder to stomach. The entire flick is constructed, from the visual to the musical elements, to create an incredibly grim atmosphere, a feeling of palpable dread, and it is unsettling and disturbing from beginning to end. It’s probably too much for most people, but it’s not like I’m going to argue that it shouldn’t be seen. I guess it’s important to have a sense of what happened. It must have been a hard flick to make and put together, but I think they made the right choices. I especially ‘enjoyed’, if such a word is even applicable, the soundtrack, which does a lot of the work in keeping us on edge and discomforted throughout.
I am glad that none of the people involved in these crimes will ever see the light of day, and that’s about the only consolation I can draw from the end of this film, I just hope they were an aberration, because I really don’t want more Australian flicks like this or like Monster or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer having to be made, though doubtless they will be. I just wish they didn’t have to be.
8 times I really wish this was entirely a work of fiction out of 10
“They’re nobody, mate. They’re nothing” – I beg to differ - Snowtown