There will be walkouts at The Snowtown Murders, though it will have nothing to do with the quality of the film. Even though it’s directed by first-timer Justin Kurzel (whom we interviewed) and stars a number of newcomers, the material is handled with those two hard-to-articulate qualities of a creative work: authority and authenticity.
The walkouts will happen because this story of Australia’s most notorious serial killing is so disturbing and brutal. “Uncompromising” is a word you read and hear a lot about movies that dare to go to dark places, but while that one word looks great in pull quotes and on posters, it doesn’t convey the complex relationships explored in The Snowtown Murders. It’s a movie about families and community just as much as it’s about a psychopath and his horrendous crimes.
The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)
Director: Justin Kurzel
Release Date: March 2nd (limited)
A dark intensity pervades The Snowtown Murders right from the beginning. There’s a pounding, impending score that bookends the story, and while it’s absent through the rest of the film, its mood lingers in the grim proceedings. Not too long after the music cuts out at the start, three children are sexually abused by a neighbor, and then we descend further into hell. This is before any of the murders actually happen.
The details of the Snowtown murders themselves are ghastly: 12 people dead, each the victim of prolonged torture. The majority of the victims were stuffed in barrels filled with acid. The press dubbed it “the Bodies in Barrels Murders,” and the town of Snowtown became inextricably linked to the horrors of the case. In Australia, the film was simply titled Snowtown, which probably gives an idea of what the name connotes in the country.
Multiple people were involved in the killings; the mastermind was John Bunting, played with brilliance by Daniel Henshall. Bunting entered a depressed suburb of Adelaide and manipulated those around him to murder people in the area and steal their welfare payments. John initially approached his killings with a corrupted sense of vigilante righteousness, playing on the community’s fear of pedophiles and gays. In the end, it was all just a pretext for sadism.
If the intent was to make a purely visceral film, it would be tempting to construct the story around each grisly killing. There’s enough in the murders to shock an audience into submission. For instance, one particular torture/murder involved a lit sparkler firework inserted into a male victim’s urethra. That act is thankfully not in the film, but cruelty of that ilk is sometimes used by filmmakers to bludgeon viewers into an appreciation of extremes.
It takes a skilled director (like Kurzel) and screenwriter (like the film’s writer Shaun Grant) to shift away from mere excess. Maybe it’s this refocusing or reframing of excess that turns potentially exploitative material into something that’s memorable for more than just the initial shock. The first murder depicted in graphic detail allows the audience to imagine and reconstruct the earlier murders that were merely implied. And so sort of like the music that bookends the film, a shot of a bloody tub or a bloody pillow has these powerful echoes in the film once we have an idea of what went on in one act of murder.
The center of The Snowtown Murders is the family dynamic and power dynamic that emerges between John Bunting and single-mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris). John becomes a father figure to her boys, and takes a strong liking to her son Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). Jamie is the audience’s entry point into the story, and we get to view John as he views John. We watch as John’s demeanor shifts between a father figure and a fear-mongering psychopath. We learn about the murders as Jamie does, and see a lot of the violence that Jamie sees, and eventually fall with Jamie as he falls.
Pittaway plays Jamie as a sad blank slate, and he’s actually able to convey a lot simply by staring into the middle distance. That look is one of conflict and desolation. Harris’s performance is equally compelling, and she carries herself like a woman weathered steadily by the tough realities of her life. Both actors were unknowns cast from the actual area of the murders. They look like part of the grim world of the film; they are the blooms and rock formations native to this depressed setting. It may explain why their mere appearance can communicate so much about their desperate situation and the desperate location.
Rather than a silent, brooding beast of a man, serial killer John Bunting is first introduced as a well-loved member of the community. He even does something about the pedophile. It’s not murder in this first instance, but the extreme action he takes is a portent of the cruelty and horror to come. That’s the first hint that something isn’t quite right about John. The next indication is a harrowing scene with Jamie. It’s an intense kind of loyalty test that sets the tone for the relationship between the two characters and tempers the interactions that John has with others in his inner circle.
Henshall was relatively unknown in Australia prior to this film, but this is bound to be a breakthrough for him. You get to see Bunting as this fully formed and charismatic presence. He’s able to switch from caring neighbor and friend to bloodthirsty psychopath to father figure all in the course of a single scene, and Henshall plays each facet so naturally that it’s believable. More than that, the caring aspects of John Bunting become more sinister as a result — we know what’s brewing inside and it’s just a matter of when it will be released. His little, silent smiles become loaded, chilling things.
There’s this underlying sense that the reason so many people in that depressed suburb went along with the murders is that John paid attention to them. You’re constantly reminded that this is a bad neighborhood at the outskirts of society. They’re discarded people, the dregs, in a place that’s routinely disregarded. That anyone showed them some sort of attention must have seemed welcome. That kindness coupled with intimidation can be turned into coercion is scary, and that’s one of the things that makes The Snowtown Murders so effective. We see the psychology of manipulation from the point of view of the manipulated.
I mentioned walkouts at the outset of this review because there were two or three scenes (one totally unexpected and starkly depicted) in the first third of the film that seem like they could break some filmgoers. While watching these scenes unfold, I thought to myself, “If I wasn’t watching this movie in a room full of film critics, there would be people standing up to leave right now.”
And yet I wouldn’t blame audience members from walking out even though The Snowtown Murders is so expertly crafted. Violence can trigger a response, and intense emotion can trigger a response, and in a suffocating, gritty film that offers both so relentlessly in its run time, sometimes there is only one way out. This escape is a luxury of film; for the people that were trapped in that community, it’s another luxury they could not afford.