3 Stars out of 4
Snowtown is one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. It’s about dismal people soiled in dire, desolate living conditions in South Australia. They spend their time in listlessness, their anger and apathy an extension of their boredom. The world to them is a bleak and senseless place. Not a land of opportunity. The movie itself, I’m sure you could predict, is not an exercise in joy.
It surrounds the infamous Snowtown murders, masterminded by John Bunting, who is labelled as Australia’s worst serial killer. He, along with a few accomplishes, killed at least 11 people – most of the victims were either homosexuals or pedophiles. Strangely, Bunting was affiliated with a gay man named Barry (Richard Green), who introduced him to the family of Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harvey), whose children were being sexually abused by her boyfriend. Bunting harassed the boyfriend out of town by painting “FAG” on his house windows with ice cream cones and dumping kangaroo guts on his porch.
From here, Bunting earned a fatherly role in the family. We witness the film through one of the sons, James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), who would in the end be a star witness in convicting Bunting in 1999. The killings started in 1992; the family would wallow at home, drinking, smoking, and sometimes engaging in incest. They saw the murders as vigilante work, washing away the “filth”. Eight of the victims were dismembered and stored in barrels at an abandoned bank in the titular town.
Immediately I think of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which involved actress Elizabeth Olsen perfectly playing a girl who traumatically recollected on her experiences in a cult in the Catskill Mountains. The truth of her memories were challenged by the brainwashing from the cult’s leader, played by John Hawkes. In Snowtown, Bunting is played by Daniel Henshall, an Aussie actor who, by comparison, makes Hawkes a Teletubbie.
He plays Bunting ferociously, without ever going over the top. He is composed, which makes it even more jarring when his killer instincts are exposed. The most dangerous quality about Bunting is not his strength or wits, but his charisma. Unlike the killers in the Thomas Harris novels, Bunting enjoys the company of friends and family. He is open and social and, strangely enough, likable.
Snowtown, however, is not a character study. Bunting is a menacing spectacle, who we observe in horror rather than deeply scrutinizing. Director Justin Kurzel is not interested in rationalizing things; events aren’t really explained. He seems ambivalent to explain the killings and to merely depict them with a sombre tone and muted color palette. This is both fascinating and maddening. While I admire his uncompromisingly ambiguous world, his narrative can become vacuous as all the whitewashed despair on-screen has a tendency to filter out purpose and interest. You might even say Snowtown is disturbing to a fault.
Impossible it is to explain murder. Every homicide is, to me, a meaningless act. We hear them coined in the papers as acts of revenge, passion, or dishonor. At the time of Charles Manson, the media associated his rampage with drugs, rebellion, and The Beatles. With the shooters at Columbine, it was bullying, Marilyn Manson, and Pulp Fiction. Daringly, Snowtown doesn’t justify its characters’ actions. It is uncomfortably matter-of-fact. It is possible that Bunting was just simply evil…that’s it.
Granted, I’m not sure dramatizing the film through Vlassakis was a bright idea. His character is so meek and passive that the film becomes those qualities itself. As a result, we sometimes find ourselves disengaged. Observing, observing, observing until our eyes glaze over. Also, Kurzel isn’t exactly successful at depicting the psychological process to which Vlassakis was slowly controlled by Bunting’s imperious charm.
Still, Snowtown is effective. Regarding tone and performance, it is sublime. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend it on a limb. Although the film isn’t gory and the murders occur eerily off-screen, this is further reason why Snowtown lingers in your imagination. We are more disturbed by what we don’t see and, more so, what we can’t explain.
Snowtown, however, knows its environment deeply, remorselessly; it’s a place of emptiness and despair. It makes you wonder if Bunting, stuck in this place, was acting out and performing these killings simply to pass the time.