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Directed by Justin Kurzel
Running time 120 minutes
Synopsis: The story of the Snowtown “Bodies in Barrels” murders of the 1990s and John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), Australia’s most prolific serial killer.
This seemingly incongruous outcome raises issues of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Indeed, as soon as word was out that a film about the Snowtown murders was to be made, commentators were decrying the inappropriateness of the production as leeching off real-life tragedy. Kurzel has however definitively lain to rest such accusations. Snowtown tells you what you need to know of what happened and no more. It is not a forensic blow-by-blow account of the killings, nor is it a sensationalist exploitation of them. It is rather an unflinching odyssey into the heart of human darkness. Anyone who saw last year’s Winter’s Bone will have some idea of where Snowtown sits in the landscape of cruelty but it is many brutal miles beyond backwoods justice and much closer to the edge of a psychological abyss.
Although challenging subject matter, even more extraordinarily given that this is Kurzel’s debut feature, everything about Snowtown is superbly well-judged. Films based on real-life events, whatever their stripe, always carry a surcharge of fascination. Over and above the narrative drive there is the awareness that what we are seeing (more or less), really did happen. Eschewing cinema’s inherent tendency to glamorise or, at leas,t aestheticise, Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant make reality their foundation. Not only is the film shot in Adelaide’s shabby outer suburbs where many of the events actually took place but also many of the cast are locals. This first-hand connection immediately expunges any sense that what we see is a cinematic performance, a quality which ultimately compromised last year’s much-trumpeted crime drama Animal Kingdom, a film which had its fair share of real brutality.
A good half of Snowtown is given over to establishing the setting and context of the murders – a dead-end on the fringe of mainstream society made up of life’s flotsam and jetsam, existing in a self-perpetuating cycle of mental and physical abuse into which the seemingly-charming John Bunting drifts and quickly establishes himself as its dominant voice. The production design, art direction and cinematography all work together to portray the bleakness of this world but it is the cast of locals who essentially play themselves without a trace of self-consciousness who make the film so effective.
In the part of Bunting, Daniel Henshall is a professional actor (his main previous role was in the Out of the Blue TV series) but most of the other cast members are non-actors. Whilst Henshall is superb as the ever-smiling but coldly sadistic Bunting who rules the roost by virtue of force of personality, Lucas Pittaway, one of those non-actors, is perfect as Jamie, the none-too bright son of Bunting’s girlfriend (Louise Harris). He may not exactly be the audience’s point of identification but as essentially the observer who becomes a participant he makes palpable the sense of entrapment in an inexorable horror which Kurzel and his team so brilliantly bring home.
Over time standards change but it is not too bold to propose now that Snowtown is one of the finest Australian films ever made. Still, repugnance is as repugnance does and it is hard to imagine that, no matter how good this film is as an artistic achievement, that it is going to attract a large audience. After all, the dominant mode of cinema is escape and there is no escape from Snowtown.