Snowtown (2011, Australia)
Director: Justin Kurzel Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris
In a world full of garish, gaudy, sensationalist movies about murder and violence it’s often easy to lose the connection between the make believe evil and brutality so often portrayed on screen and the real, living savagery that lurks within humanity that provides the inspiration (maybe basis is a better word) for the violence-as-entertainment we so often choose to consume. Sometimes though you find a film that reconnects you with the visceral reality of all that corn syrup gore and serves as a reminder to us the audience that yes, people, real human people, are actually capable of all those things we write off as cinematic fantasy.
Snowtown is such a film. An account of Australia’s Snowtown Murders, the film tells the story from the point of view of Jamie Vlassakis (Pittaway), a teenage boy who falls under the influence of the strangely charismatic and somewhat intense John Bunting (Henshall) who is in a relationship with Jamie’s mum. Coming from a poverty stricken family (and having been subjected to horrific sexual abuse by family friends and his own family) Jamie proves very susceptible to John’s influence and it doesn’t take long before John indoctrinates Jamie into his sideline – the brutal torture and murder of people he has taken a disliking to on the pretext that they are paedophiles, drug abusers and homosexuals and therefore deserving of their fate.
It’s a pared down, documentary style affair which charts the insiduous process by which Bunting ingratiates himself into Jamie’s family, drip feeding you the signs that he’s not just all talk but is actually capable of some truly horrendous things. His coercion of Jamie by being the only person in his life to treat him decently and with any respect, offering him a chance at acceptance as long as he does things John’s way not to mention “justice” for the abuses he has suffered is horrific to behold and entirely plausible, starting with small things and gradually escalating in traditional serial killer style through the abuse and slaying of animals into the torture and murder of human beings. Henshall’s matter of fact performance as Bunting is the crux of the film and it is genuinely chilling, the easy going way in which he goes about his normal day to day business one minute, before brutally torturing and murdering his victims the next proving to be somewhat terrifying. Almost as terrifying as the hold he has over others to assist him in his grizzly deeds.
For the most part, the savagery visited upon his victims is inferred rather than seen, the tally kept by way of the audio tapes he forces his victims to record with goodbye messages for loved ones (“I’m heading up north Mum, and won’t be back” type things designed to throw people off the scent), the film being interspersed with these doom laden messages as the body count grows. When we do get to see Bunting at work the scenes possess a visceral power that is truly shocking (all the more so given the documentary style of filming) that really does bring home the sheer sadism at the heart of his crimes. For a scene like this to be able to shock in this day and age (especially someone as desensitised to on screen violence as I am) is hugely impressive.
Aside from Henshall’s powerhouse performance, the rest of the cast are excellent. Pittaway in particular does a lovely job of portraying Jamie sympathetically, despite his eventual collaboration with Australia’s worst ever serial killer. His story is heartbreaking, the victim of abuse (in one scene he is subjected to a horrific assault at the hands of his brother that rivals anything Shane Meadows has committed to screen), exploited by the only person who has really treated him like another human being.
Snowtown is a far cry from the voyeuristic sensationalism you sometimes get when serial killers get the big screen treatment. It goes beyond the illicit thrills of getting an insight into a serial killer’s mind (which, incidentally, it does spectacularly well) and puts it all into context – an environment characterised by poverty, social decay and broken families – all of which provide fertile ground for Bunting’s evil plot to take root. But Snowtown is more than just social commentary or a case study of a notorious killer, it’s a microcosm of human evil and a chilling insight into the dark heart of the human race.