Snowtown

Snowtown

*****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Dodgy dads, worrying father figures and their struggling 'sons' have become a fixture of Antipodean cinema of late. While in films such as Mad Bastards and Boy, fathers were able - however painfully - to find some sort of reconnection with their offspring, darker tales, including Animal Kingdom, see adolescent boys caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, as they are sucked into the corrupt world of their brutal father figures. Snowtown marks the most disturbing notch on this trend yet and announces another batch of young Australian talent to look for in the future.

Screenwriter Shaun Grant is audacious in his muddying of genres to tell the true story of Australian serial killer John Bunting. While the idea of bodies in barrels certainly lends itself towards horror, director Justin Kurzel helps Grant take the notion of this as far from grand guignol as possible, rooting acts of murder and deviance within such everyday settings that they become more believable and more abhorrent. While acts of horror are here, this is also a gritty and bleak consideration of life and prospects for those on the breadline in Australia.


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Snowtown is not an inspection of a serial killer's psyche, so much as an exploration of his impact on others, showing how even those we would brand 'evil' often have traits that can prove surprisingly attractive to those who come into their orbit. And what happens if a killer is, depending on your perspective, perversely also a likeable saviour?

That's the dilemma which faces 16-year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). Living or, more accurately, existing with his mum Elizabeth (Louise Harris) and younger brothers Alex (Marcus Howard) and Nicholas (Matthew Howard) on the sort of suburban sink estate that makes inner-city deprivation look like it might be a step up, he's as vulnerable as a chicken in a fox den. Fractured families and a fluid population mean that abuse of one sort or another is never far away. Forget the sunshine and light of Neighbours and buckle up for a bleached grey landscape, courtesy of wonderful cinematography from Adam Arkapaw, that offers nothing but neighbours from hell.

Into this world - where the only upbeat sounds are the electronic ping of a one-armed bandit or the incongruous melody of an ice-cream van - walks John (Daniel Henshall), who initially only seems capable of killing with kindness. He sorts out a pervert across the street in a brutal - yet in Jamie and Elizabeth's eyes, justified - fashion, and provides the kids with a three-meals-a-day and ocassional-days-out stability that has previously been denied them.

But beneath the cuddly facade, something more sinister is lurking. Maybe it's the way John seems just a bit too eager to hack up raw joeys into retributional slop or the over-the-top descriptions of vigilante attacks he'd like to inflict on homosexuals that he gives to his neighbours at kitchen table conferences. But as Jamie starts to wonder if his new role model is as loveable as he first appears he is simultaneously being groomed by John to adopt his attitudes and modus operandii.

There may be only one truly, extremely violent point in Snowtown but by the time it arrives, the tension is so thick that even a simple statement such as, "You've got to see this. C'mon," hangs in the air like mustard gas. Early hints of what is to come are nothing compared to the sheer in-your-face banal horror of this scene - which is easily one of the most difficult-to-watch moments committed to screen all year. This is not so much because of its brutality - although it has that in spades - but because it comes at a point where we are so invested in Jamie that the emotional impact of what is happening is devastatingly heart-rending. Layer in the realisation that what you are seeing actually happened and the result takes you beyond disturbing into that place where your skin starts to creep and your brain crawls into the foetal position.

Away from the searing script, Frank Lipson's sound design is striking and Jed Kurzel's excellent score has the relentless, primoridial thrum of a digeridoo, that manages to be simultaneously familiar and alien. Perhaps best of all, Kurzel has the maturity to know just when to pull away from a shot to make it hum with tension. He also uses what appear to be stop-motion montages at key moments to suggest the sense of time standing still. The acting, meanwhile, is nothing short of remarkable, particularly when you consider Henshall - making a startling impression in his film debut - is the only professional, with most of the extras drawn from the community in which Bunting lived. Watching Snowtown isn't easy but it is well worth the effort.

Reviewed on: 22 Nov 2011
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A vulnerable boy is drawn into the crimes of a charismatic serial killer. Based on a true story.
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Read more Snowtown reviews:

David Graham *****

Festivals:

SSFF 2011
London 2011

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