Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel makes his debut feature with Snowtown, a dramatic retelling of the story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer John Bunting, with mixed results.
At times Snowtown’s power to shock is immensely effective. We follow the trail of John Bunting, the notorious figure behind 11 killings in the 1990’s, exploring his motivation and reasoning along the way. By placing the viewer in the middle of all manner of unpleasant situations, it feels as though Kurzel is manipulating his audience in to empathising with how and why what happened happened. It’s a beautiful looking film too, for the most part, which in turn dramatically contradicts the acts being portrayed. Ultimately though, the film is a long and fractured affair, which wains after the first act, and ultimately contains a message that is at the best murky, and at the worst dangerous.
The performances from the leads are note-perfect Lucas Pittaway plays the vulnerable youth at the centre of the tale with the necessary amounts of fragility and bewilderment, his abased Jamie also showing the level of cognisance necessary to convince of his involvement in the situation being presented. Daniel Hensall is great as the films dark heart, with the emphasis on that particular organ; His is a noble introduction, a figure who imparts manners upon and protects a very vulnerable family. Early sequences play out like the bastard child of The Tree Of Life, 2011’s other great tale of patriarchal camaraderie, although its another Malick film that thematically Snowtown resembles closest, 1973’s Badlands. His John Bunting is presented as a vigilante standing up for those ignored by the political classes, in turn almost glamorising the criminal at hand.
The first act of Snowtown plays out almost like an anti-Zodiac, breaking down and dissecting the serial killer genre. we see why someone might act the way they do (vigilantism in the face of disillusionment) and we are shown how the world around them adapts to it. The viewer is made to feel like a malignant member of the circle of friends who support and conspire with Bunting, in turn adding to the uneasy feeling surrounding the work in general. And uneasy it is. There isn’t an area of the underworld not captured, although its Bunting’s chief concern, that of pedophilia, that naturally affects the most. No better is this conveyed than in the films opening moments, during which Kurzel pulls the proverbial rug from under our feet and places it firmly in a place that we haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of retaining it from.
Much of the shock of the kill within Snowtown comes from the directors very clever use of sound. Rather than punctuating scenes with visual cuts, Kurzel shakes things up with sharp, almost painful instances of sound. Elsewhere the noise of 16-bit video games reinforce notions of childhood, and the springs of a trampoline provoke an emotional “jump” worthy of the finest horror film. Sound is aggression in the world of Snowtown, be it in the “warning” of a motorcycle rev or the drumbeat of a teenage sexual deviant.
The Australia portrayed in Snowtown is also suitably apt for that particular genre. There isn’t a sunny beach in sight, as we are transplanted to the grey suburbs of Adelaide. As if to perform the ultimate act of abortion from its international perception, Kurzel quite literally decapitates a kangaroo, in a sequence that addresses not only national identity but quite literally takes it apart.