When 16-year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is introduced to a charismatic man, a friendship begins. As the relationship grows so do Jamie's suspicions, until he finds his world threatened by both his loyalty for, and fear of, his newfound father figure, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall): Australia's most notorious serial killer.
Snowtown expires soon at SBS On Demand. Link appears after the review
(Reviewed at the 2011 ADELAIDE FILM FESTIVAL)
Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown examines the tipping point at which victim turns perpetrator, in its observant account of the men responsible for Australia’s worst serial killings.
The 'Bodies in the Barrels’ case (as it came to be referred in the pithy shorthand of sub-editors and TV producers) became the longest and most expensive criminal trial in South Australian history. The 12 victims were the four killers’ own relatives, friends, and former lovers, and though others in their circle knew or suspected what was going on, they neither dared nor cared to report it.
The police investigation and subsequent Crown trial unseated empirical evidence that the killers’ community on Adelaide’s northern fringe was awash with violence and sexual abuse, and generational welfare dependency. Criminologists argued that this vacuum of ethical mores created fertile ground for such extreme acts of criminal violence as those atrocities committed by the four accused.
The details of the Snowtown case have all the makings of a sensational True Crime potboiler (and indeed, several have already aired on Australian TV). However, director Kurzel sidesteps the gore – mostly – to focus instead on the circumstances that enabled the atrocities to occur. With Snowtown, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant paint a gloomy portrait of misappropriated vulnerability, of a network of roguish cronies whose warped vigilantism and rampant homophobia culminated in that grisly discovery in a disused bank vault in 1999. It’s a gripping, discomforting watch.
Daniel Henshall plays the enigmatic villain, John Bunting, the former abattoir worker who assembled a band of willing accomplices to stalk and murder their friends and families, and profit from their welfare payments. With a warm smile and disarming candour, Henshall is a charismatic force that others gravitate towards, and his complex performance does much to convey the means by which Bunting won friends and influenced people to comply in his seven-year killing spree.
Among those accomplices is James Vlassikos (Lucas Pittaway), a quiet teen grown accustomed to the repeated sexual abuses occasioned upon him (with silent matter-of-factness) by predators from within his family and the wider neighbourhood.
Snowtown’s events unfold from around the perspective of Vlassikos, who came late to the killing spree (it is some way into the film before Bunting reveals his handiwork to a stunned Jamie) but who subsequently made up for lost time. The real Vlassikos later became the Crown’s key witness against Bunting and his principal henchman, Robert Wagner.
When Bunting rides into town on the housing estate equivalent of a white horse (a revved up two-wheeler), he is saviour/hero/father figure in one. Instantly, he wins Jamie’s respect and affection for his fearless torment of the young man’s tormentor (the sex offender living across the street, who took dirty pictures of Jamie and his two brothers while minding them for their mum, Elizabeth).
John takes up with Elizabeth and moves in with she and the boys, and his presence provides a semblance of normalcy in their lives. Still outraged at the abuse the boys endured, John encourages them to work through their residual anger and serve up dishes of cold vengeance (literally, with ice cream and kangaroo guts), until they successfully rid the street of the creep.
Spurred on by the victory, Bunting holds court over a series of kitchen table 'neighbourhood watch’-like meetings. He stirs his neighbours' paranoia and cultivates their revenge fantasies with graphic details of the punishment he would dispense. Unbeknownst to (most of) them, he sets to work on a virtual shopping list of targets, singled out for their rumoured paedophilia - or for simply being gay and/or owning expensive sneakers.
The perpetrators’ complacency about their extreme violence is underscored by the fact that much of the sexual abuse, the plotting and the torture took place around banal activities such as a meat-and-three-veg dinner, or watching the cricket on TV. Kurzel skilfully places the violence within its contradictory context in unsettling scenes (in one, a Comedy Company skit is heard in the background and in another, a silent rape plays out to the strains of a test match).
The lens of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw conveys both the bleakness of the situation and the beauty of the landscape around the rust belt town where the final murder took place. However, the use of stylised overcranking in scenes that accompany audio taken by Bunting and his cohorts to evade suspicion, sits at odds with the gritty realism of the film.
As Jamie, newcomer Lucas Pittaway (who was plucked from the obscurity of an Adelaide shopping mall by a talent scout) is a sullen but engaging presence as an abused teen who crosses the well-worn threshold into criminality. South Australian native Kurzel stops short of eliciting empathy for the teen and by the time the end credits roll, there is no question about Jamie’s complicity in the crimes.
Snowtown mines similar territory to Rowan Woods’ seminal The Boys, in its exploration of very bad deeds born of pressure cooker family dysfunction and machismo. (Kurzel and Grant openly acknowledge the influence that Woods’ unrelenting tale of kinship had on them, in the development process.) However, Snowtown lacks the sustained tension of Woods’ claustrophobic film, and would benefit from a tighter edit to trim Jamie’s many reaction shots, and to minimise the lag in momentum as the film heads towards its climax.
Watch 'Snowtown' at SBS On Demand
Daniel Henshall reflects on his career-making performance in 'Snowtown'
(Daniel's interview occurs at 21:06)