Reviewed by: David Graham

Australian cinema continues to throw up offbeat gems packed with impressive performances, with the likes of Animal Kingdom and The Loved Ones taking a fresh approach to some well-worn genres. Snowtown takes John McNaughton's true murder grot classic Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer as a rough template, tackling the life of Down Under's most notorious real-life serial killer John Bunting. As the title suggests, it's as much a portrait of a place - every bit as cold and harsh as it sounds - as of its people, made especially riveting by the heartbreaking account of perhaps the years-long case's most tragic victim and eventual accomplice, abused teenager Jamie Vlassakis. Joseph Kurzel's frighteningly impressive debut is one of the most compulsively ghoulish dramas you're ever likely to see, but it's also an admirable and alarming examination of how complicity can give way to active participation.

Jamie's life in a run-down Adelaide suburb is marred by crushing poverty, casual hard drug use and sexual abuse by family member. When his mum hooks up with alpha male Bunting, the house becomes populated by the charming psychopath's circle of ne'er-do-wells, who embrace Jamie during their frequent vigilante discussions of the local homosexuals and pedophiles. Jamie welcomes the attention but soon finds himself involved first-hand in the group's crimes, as Bunting selects a series of victims based on their dubious sexuality and lifestyles. With Bunting's killing moving ever closer to home, Jamie struggles to stay on the madman's good side and out of his bloody handiwork.

Shot through with brutal realism and a fine eye for the squalid detritus that the impoverished family accumulates, Snowtown is almost unbearably unpleasant, and settles early into a rhythm of unapologetic shock tactics that will send many viewers straight to the exits. Its portrayal of pedophilia in the first half hour alone will be too much for most, with the resulting campaign of petty revenge equally uncomfortable. Animal slaughter is represented as a ritualistic, sacrificial pact between Bunting and his young protegé-to-be, desensitising the boy as well as the audience to the senseless rampage that is to follow.

Horror fans may be disappointed that we mostly bear witness to the planning and cover-up of the crimes, but the film is no less disturbing for focusing on the pre-meditation and aftermath of Bunting's heinous exploits. Kurzel is especially skillful in interspersing the narrative with the telephone messages the murderer coerced from his targets, poignantly bidding farewell under duress to their friends and families. The film moves with numbing, gnawing momentum from threat to action, the discussions of deserving punishment for society's reprobates that many people will have either had themselves or considered making the audience implicitly relate to the crimes and how they could get so out of hand.

Astonishing acting is key to the film's ferocious power, with Daniel Henshall electrifying as the magnetic madman dealing death with the righteous self-justification of the deluded. The story is less about Bunting and his motives, however, than you might expect; it's primarily about the moral destruction of the tragically insular and impressionable Jamie, and in that respect Lucas Pittaway is outstanding. With a superficially subtle range of inexpressive reactions, Pittaway conveys how this naive, victimized youth goes from hesitantly helping Bunting to full, cold-blooded involvement with every aspect of the crimes. For much of the film Pittaway is required to be welling over with tearful fear, and his unhinged displays of emotional panic are truly saddening to behold.

The supporting cast are also uniformly excellent, with Louise Harris making for a fascinating counterpoint to Bunting as his initially adoring but eventually repulsed girlfriend; her reaction to the news of Jamie and his brothers' molestation is particularly harrowing. Events are made even more unsettling by the insistent, pulsating score, deployed with maximum skill to communicate how out-of-control the murderous spree is growing. Shaun Grant's screenplay is chilling in its economy and convincing evocation of lowlife ideals; the moment where Bunting explains his attitude towards his victims ('They're nothing. No-one will miss them. No-one cares.') is horrifyingly rational, making the whole situation even more tragic.

Snowtown is strong sauce in a genre that can easily spill over into lurid exploitation, but it's a psychologically resonant and assuredly relevant experience. Acted with bloody conviction and directed with a flair that will surely see Kurzel progress to bigger budgets and a broader canvas, it marks another exceptional entry in the new Australian cinematic canon. The harsh kitchen-sink styling will put off those looking for cheap thrills, while the subject matter will disgust as many as it will enthrall. But the film remains a work of rare power, that builds suspense inexorably towards a deeply shattering ending, offering no easy answers or pat explanation to the troubling behavior it has depicted. If you've got the stomach and stamina for it Snowtown comes highly recommended; just be warned you may feel the need for a shower afterwards.

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:

Amber Wilkinson *****

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writer: Shaun Grant, Justin Kurzel

Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Craig Coyne, Richard Green, Louise Harris, Brendan Rock, Anthony Groves, Bob Adriaens, David Walker, Keiran Schwerdt, Frank Cwiertniak, Robert Deeble, Bryan Sellars

Year: 2011

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia


SSFF 2011
London 2011

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