Film Review: Snowtown (2011)

James Madden.

There is something about being in a film screening with at least 50 people. When I was younger, I preferred it when no one was in a cinema. I wanted it all to myself. Now that some years have passed, I much prefer a cinema to be as full as possible. The easiest way to guarantee such a setting is to go see a film in its first week, and of course in a popular time slot. I do believe that an audience can make a substantial difference, most notably in comedic films. However, there does come a time when the fear, suspense, shock, repulsion or horror in a collective audience allows for a liminal immersion in the diegetic world. This was my experience upon seeing Snowtown.

Being only slightly familiar with the “bodies in the barrels” case in South Australia and “Australia’s worst serial killer” John Bunting, my only encounters with the film included posters and seeing the trailer a couple of hours before the screening. It was clear that there would be comparisons to last year’s Animal Kingdom. This in hand, I entered into the cinema knowing that my mind may not be put at ease for a couple of hours. And boy was I right!

Ice cream is going to save the day

Snowtown, based on a true story, follows Jamie, a young, suburban teenager who lives at home with three brothers and his mother. Their surroundings are not lush or extravagant, but simple and dirty. Shopping trolleys are used for bumper car style games signifying the lower class nature of the foreboding story. Jamie’s mother Elizabeth starts romantically seeing Jeffrey across the road. One day while Jeffrey babysits the kids, an event occurs that is the impetus for the rest of the film. Without spoiling anything for those who are not familiar with John Bunting or the Snowtown murders, the community surrounding Jamie’s family is outraged, and vigilante style meetings occur at Jamie’s house. Enter John, a new love interest for Elizabeth, into the fray. Taking a warm interest to Elizabeth and her family, John develops a close relationship with Jamie. As the vigilante group begins to target particular predators, a series of murders occurs. The involvement of these killings sees the second half of the film through a tumultuous ride.

There is no doubt that Snowtown exposition sets a defence for its lead character Jamie. The film is a point of view of a convicted killer. It is how and why he became involved in these killings that the film takes particular license with, and it is this that contains some of the most fascinating scenes. We are presented with many tipping and turning points for Jamie, and these naturally are weighted with sympathy towards his character.

Conjuring up an amalgamation of John Jarrett as an Ivan Milat persona in Wolf Creek and Gyton Grantley as Carl Williams in Underbelly, Daniel Henshall plays John Bunting with haunting conviction. His depiction shows Bunting as manipulative, conniving, influential and very powerful. His capacity for evil is beyond evident, but what is more frightening about his performance is the subtle and calm nature of his demeanour.

Lucas Pittaway portrays Jamie Vlassakis as a victimized character with true sincerity. Despite not having a stack of dialogue, Pittaway makes up for this with emotion. Numerous harrowing breakdown scenes show Pittaway’s undeniable talent. His character is especially impressionable and is taken advantage of by the sociopathic Bunting. While the film may blur the undoubtably thin line between truth and fiction, this Jamie is definitely lead down the wrong track. It would not be unfair to say that Jamie could have been a completely normal person had none of the events leading up to the murders occurred.

Unsurprisingly, there are particular scenes that demonstrate the disturbing nature of the crimes committed. While I am not a vocal proponent for violence in cinema, it does feel important that these scenes are in the film. Their aim, while being distressing or horrific, implore the acts of violence that occurred with these murders. The scenes are intense, but exist in a greater dialogue with the social impacts of the characters within the film. Snowtown‘s difference and intrigue surrounds the complex, sociological look at human nature and the potentials of evil that is perhaps evident in each and every primal, mammal.

Screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Snowtown comes in a long line of astounding and prolific Australian films and is easily one of the best films so far this year. It is tempting to narrow this down further into the horror/suspense/crime genre, but it seems that Snowtown is all of these and more. Director Justin Kurzel brings a complex exploration into the genesis of the horrific and unforgettable acts of the notorious Bunting and his fellow murders. While the film deals specifically with these crimes, the bigger question is put forth about the potentials of human nature. And this is perhaps the most intense and scariest element of the film.

Snowtown is on currently on release in Australia through Madman Films.

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