South Australia's mundane horror

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Snowtown (MA). Director: Justin Hurzel. Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Elizabeth Harvey. 120 minutes

Two scenes prompted audience members to flee the Snowtown screening I attended. One involved the slaughter of a household pet. The other, the prolonged torture and murder of a human being.

No one could be blamed for finding such images impossible to endure. But I'm not sure what these people expected. This, after all, is a film about horrific true events that culminated in 1999 with the discovery, in a South Australian small town, of eight human bodies stuffed into drums of hydrochloric acid and secreted in an abandoned bank vault. What could it be but the stuff of nightmares?

No doubt the phrase 'torture porn' will be tossed about by some who wish to dismiss Snowtown and its sordid content. But this does no justice to the remarkable, if gruelling, achievement that is director Justin Kurzel's debut feature, a cinematic retelling of the infamous 'Snowtown murders' (most of which occurred in Adelaide's northern suburbs, with the bodies transported to Snowtown at a later date).

This is not so much a document of facts. On the contrary, one of the film's shortcomings is that it at times sacrifices clarity to ambiguity. It is, rather, a bleak and grimy portrait of the evil that humans are capable of under the most mundane circumstances; of the fragility of innocence when exposed only to corrupt role models; and of the devolution of morality when it is nourished by sick ideologies.

Those two aforementioned, repulsive scenes are vital to this thematic make-up. They are watershed moments in sadistic but charismatic serial killer John Bunting's (Henshall) grooming of his young protégé, James Vlassakis (Pittaway), which gradually transforms the boy from observer to participant.

It is right that we, the audience, are appalled; it means we relate more to the boy's disgust, than to the cold detachment — even quiet pleasure — of the man. It means our moral compasses are in sync: we recognise the monster in the room, and the means by which he exerts his evil influence.

Perhaps Kurzel followed the lead of last year's superb crime drama Animal Kingdom by taking as his focus the corruption of an adolescent by amoral adults (Bunting is not the only character to misuse James). Certainly it is a gift to the audience that we have this central tragedy to sympathise with.

Most shocking in both life and film is how fruitfully the evil borne by Bunting — who appears to have neither conscience nor empathy — takes hold and thrives amid mundaneness.

In Kurzel's vision, the ritual of eating is juxtaposed easily with the ritual of slaughter. James first encounters Bunting, a new friend of his mother's, in the family kitchen, cooking breakfast. (Bunting is a provider, which goes some way to explaining the attraction he holds for this downtrodden family.)

Hatred against homosexuals and paedophiles (one of the pretexts for Bunting and Co.'s murders) is stoked by gossip and speechifying around dining tables and in suburban kitchens, along with fantasies of violent retaliation that are later made reality.

Meals resonate with a cacophony of chewing, and the clink and scrape of cutlery and crockery. These sounds seem strangely to echo the crunch of a toe bone between pliers, or the creak of a garrote around a victim's throat, so that all become familiar motifs in a single, disconcerting soundscape.

In Snowtown the discoloured suburban setting is tangible (filming took place in and around the areas where the actual murders occurred), but is imbued with a surreal, ominous atmosphere; evident as much in the image of a backyard lawn party centred on the spectacle of two men digging a hole, as in the sight of a Mr Whippy van rolling disconsolately past a vacant block.

With the exception of Henshall, a professional actor from Sydney, Kurzel and his casting director selected amateur actors from the Adelaide suburbs. This only enhances the film's shocking realism.

Among a number of remarkable performances (notably Harris as James' fiercely devoted mother, who is nonetheless equally susceptible to Bunting's charisma), the central roles of Bunting and Vlassakis are perfectly cast. Henshall displays the perfect mixture of fatherly charm and cold brutality, and Pittaway's introverted performance captures every nuance of James' horrific inner turmoil. 

It is unfortunate that more time is not spent on building sympathy for the victims, many of whom are acquaintances or family members of the killers but are only seen peripherally. In this respect, the film does skid dangerously close to sadistic voyeurism. That said, Snowtown at all times regards the taking of human life as a fundamentally immoral horror. It is only right that we be shocked.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: snowtown, Justin Kurzel, bodies in barrels, Daniel Henshall, John Bunting, James Vlassakis

 

 

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Existing comments

Years ago I walked out on a film entitled Clockwork Orange. I said to my husband and friends that soon we could see copycat brutality. Under the banner of 'reality' some film producers and directors ply their merciless trade to swell their bank balance - and I protest.
Joyce | 12 May 2011


Kurzel only bothers to build sympathy for the one character with a job and a car who seems to have a future. His death is the one the audience anticipates with most horror. The compass of this film is askew reinforcing the view that the victims deserved to die. In the words of SA police they are killing their own.
Bothered | 12 May 2011


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