DIRECTOR Justin Kurzel WRITER Shaun Grant; Justin Kurzel; Debi Marshall (book “Killing for Pleasure”); Andrew McGarry (book “The Snowtown Murders”) STARS Lucas Pittaway; Daniel Henshall; Louise Harris CINEMA 18 November
Incredible. Justin Kurzel’s choice of subject matter — the grooming of a teenage boy
by John Bunting, a real-life serial killer — was initially assumed too ambitious a debut by this writer. Yet, Snowtown is an experience genuinely uncomfortable at points, and the result is astounding.
Based upon Australia’s notorious Bodies in Barrels case, it is not an easy watch. Shot in muted tones, Kurzel works hard to create a feeling of no hope for the characters within, which, rather impressively, imbues a borderline unbearable tension from the very first scene. Little dialogue and choosing to shoot only on overcast days completes the impression of a deprived area, in which the characters appear to merely exist.
Our central character, 16-year-old Jamie, is the eldest of three boys to a single mother. No authoritative male makes them easy targets for the paedophile living opposite, whilst Jamie must also endure rape at the hands of a half-brother. When the avuncular John ingratiates himself into the family’s life, there is at first no reason to suspect him of anything but a charm offensive, despite his encouraging the boys to harass their abuser; this in fact cements his position as a protective father figure. Things take a darker turn, however, when Jamie finds John dismembering the man’s dogs. Responding to a matter-of-fact request for help pulping them crosses a line that John will not allow Jamie to retreat back over, and here the teenager’s indoctrination begins.
Snowtown isn’t a particularly graphic film — save one beautifully excruciating scene — despite its subject matter; the actual murders are implied for the most part, while the knowledge of John’s forward planning comes from a simple chart, dubbed the ‘spider wall’ by reporters at the time. This is a film that is more of a comment on disenfranchised society and how vulnerable its youth is. Distant shots looking into rooms framed by ajar doors creates the feeling of an observation of people we cannot help, whilst a sparingly used soundtrack accentuates this further (although removing it altogether would have been more effective). The use of real locals as opposed to actors is the cherry on top, their slightly removed, unfeeling performances perfectly representative of their plight.
Daniel Henshall is however a professional actor, and by God is this a star turn. The film is also his first feature, all prior experience in television, yet his depiction of the charismatic Bunting could not be better, switching back and forth between charming and formidable with ease. Curiously, two further titles Henshall has lined up are comedy projects; perhaps we have here a versatile actor to be noted. Lucas Pittaway is also a good choice as Jamie, and as one of the non-professionals, shows promise, his more emotional scenes perfectly believable, as is his improvised dialogue. But, the name to really walk away with is that of the director. Snowtown is a truly effective film that will stay with you long after the credits roll, and to have achieved this in a debut is quite remarkable.