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9th Apr 12
It’s grim Down Under with this recounting of the real-life events that led to the infamous ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ murders.
Remember how David Fincher’s excellent Se7en got under your skin and made you feel like you’d been present for each victim’s final moments irrespective of being shown the actual events? Aussie flick Snowtown does the same. Aside from one on-screen demise the murders are generally alluded to and never shown however come the end credits you feel like you’ve experienced seeing each grim and protracted torture and murder.
And like Se7en it leaves you thinking, filling in the blanks making for a haunting and disturbing experience. However unlike David Fincher’s signature film, Snowtown is not some fictional B-movie premise jazzed up by an A-list cast. Instead director Justin Kurzel’s feature film debut is based on actual events and features predominantly first time actors. And again unlike the more commercial serial killer antics of Kevin Spacey this is a hard-hitting, unnerving piece of film-making that one wouldn’t wish to revisit for a repeat viewing regardless of how excellently made it is.
Based on true events there’s no happy ending, no hero running in to save a potential victim and no let up in its unflinching portrayal. Snowtown starts off bleak and increases the intensity throughout. The story is told from the viewpoint of sixteen year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) who lives in a housing trust home in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. We see him killing time smoking at home, smoking outside the local amusement arcade, basically smoking lots and staring into space. There’s not much else to do except watch TV, eat greasy fried food cooked up for him and his three brothers (two younger Alex and Nicholas and one older Troy) by their persistently smoking mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris). And pose for sleazy Polaroid snaps for a babysitting pervert from across the street.
With the incident reported to the authorities and the loathsome neighbour released almost immediately on bail the locals feel that they have been let down and take to bitching and speculating about what should be done to local alleged paedophiles and homosexuals.
That’s when a new fella enters into Jamie’s fatherless existence in the form of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Initially charming Bunting smoothly integrates into the family and partners their mum. Things are looking up for the lads, however Jamie’s elder half-brother Troy (Anthony Groves) feels he needs to reassert his alpha male status within the family home and does so by sodomising Jamie.
Bad move! You see John Bunting maybe all smiles and cherubic charm but underneath he’s a raging psychopath who works with others to rid the local neighbour of the undesirables that the local authorities appear unprepared to do and that includes the likes of Troy. And what’s more he’s looking to bring Jamie onboard expecting him to wilfully enter into torturing and killing those that John deems unfit to be left to live.
Shaun Grant’s screenplay chooses to tell the story from Jamie’s point of view. By doing so we miss details in terms of what’s generally happening with people disappearing with little or no explanation, phone messages being left to loved ones and all the while there’s Bunting simmering with barely contained rage cranking up the on-screen tension. From Bunting encouraging his new young charges to throw ice cream and smear vanilla flavoured lettering upon the pederast’s abode reading ‘FAG’ to Jamie assisting with flinging chopped kangaroo entrails across the same it’s not long before Bunting is digging a big hole for no clear reason in the back yard and building up a collection of barrels in the garage.
Bleak, powerful and unsettling viewing Snowtown has proved to be a real audience divider with some citing that the filmmaker’s have crossed the line calling it ''the most disgusting, horrific, depraved and degrading film'' they have ever seen and “as close to a snuff movie'' as they could bear to watch.
At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival a small number of viewers were reported to have left during a screening. Snowtown was awarded President's Special Mention in Critics Week at the same event and also went to win a number of other awards including the Audience Award at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival where it had its world premiere.
Most of the negative reaction to the movie appears to stem from the one torture / murder scene that is shown onscreen and marks Jamie’s crossover from sitting on the sidelines to becoming an active participant in Bunting’s killing spree. To director Justin Kurzel’s credit it doesn’t wholly linger on the appalling event instead cutting to Jamie shaking sitting outside the family home not wanting to return indoors, watching as life goes go by as normal outside. It’s unsettling, but as another critic has written about Snowtown''Any violence in the film is completely linked to the characters and their journey. None of it is there for gratuitous reasons”.
Daniel Henshall as John Bunting commands the movie from the moment he appears on screen. His characterisation is by turns charming and unnerving. For all the warm smiles there lies an edge to those fixed gazes that warns of the nature of what lies beneath the veneer. Indeed so convincing is Henshall it will be hard to sit through another movie with him starring without keep thinking ‘that’s John Bunting’ and sit nervously waiting for him to start digging out his bag of torture aids. Elsewhere former charity worker and first-time actor Lucas Pittaway captures the awkwardness of sixteen-year-old Jamie with distant or vague expressions and very occasionally tears when it all gets too much for him.
Louise Harris, another first-time performer, is excellent as Jamie’s mother conveying an initial world-weariness that gives way to smiles as Bunting becomes her lover to heart-broken and confused as she wonders quite what happened to her eldest son all the while bathing in the same bath that saw her rapist son’s final moments.
Snowtown may generally spare us the grimmer material, however come the end you feel dirty just from watching wanting a decent scrub to rid you of the atrocities that have happened. With almost minimal score everything is performance lead. From Adam Arkapaw's snapshot photography to Jed Kurzel’s pounding almost minimalistic score Snowtown is one of those rare beasts that rather than smack you over the head during viewing creeps up on you afterwards, gets you thinking and trying to fill in the gaps. It all makes for a rather profound and disturbing experience that’s hard to shake off.