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South Australia's mundane horror

  • 12 May 2011

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