The Australian film Snowtown was one of few films around the world selected for the International Critic’s Week at this year’s Canne Film Festival. It focuses on one of the most horrific scenarios in Australian history, about the murders of eleven citizens of Snowtown, South Australia, whose remains were found in barrels in a bank in 1999.
This story about the victims, criminals and their relationships during the events leading up to the murders is both mind-blowingly grotesque and emotionally gripping.
Shot in the actual town with its bleak, depressing suburban atmosphere, the film charts the loss of innocence of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pitaway). As a teenager, Jamie was a multiple victim of rape, and his family would gather with the locals to vent their hatred of those they see as perverts amongst their area. Jamie and his mother and younger brothers find good company in newcomer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who provides for them during these tough times while Jamie’s father resides separately with his older brothers. We first witness Bunting taking Jamie and the boys in against their paedophile neighbour by vandalising his home with ice-cream. However, Jamie himself is taken in by John and is then exposed to the notorious killings of these offenders.
This is truly a chilling film experience. First-time feature director Justin Kurzel does not pull you back from the destructive nature of murder and torture which are hard to sit through, but this isn’t gore-schlock. It really does pull you in emotionally, into a world where the sexually-abused Jamie finds a father-like protector in Bunting in a town where neighbours and relatives have betrayed him in some way.
At first, we are fond of Bunting’s care for this family, even after learning about his relentless nature because you want to see the perpetrators suffer. Once we witness the brutality of these murders, we want it to stop and you can not look away, unless you are squeamish. Then comes the mind-blowing realisation that Bunting is not just against paedophiles in perspective. He is against homosexuals. That mixed feeling of appreciation and dread is a remarkable achievement of Daniel Henshall’s performance.
First time actor Lucas Pitaway, who I heard was discovered by Kurzel in a shopping mall, is terrific as Jamie as we witness this world through him. It is a tough, ungraceful, emotional-wrenching role that requires a lot of crying and he nails it. The rest of the cast, consisting of locals of the town, deliver authentic, raw performances.
The film doesn’t do a clear job at solidifying the relationships between the locals and there were times where I was confused by the number of brothers Jamie had. Audiences will be put off by the scenes of animal cruelty, but my main problem was it didn’t seem to serve any purpose to the story. The film ends at a point where something gets cut off early. I know what was going to happen but they never explained why so. Maybe the answer is in the books which the film is based on, but I didn’t get it.
This is not a film I can recommend to others, nor do I think I’ll ever watch it again for its uncompromising depiction of the killings and rape. However, I love films that drag me into their world and don’t shut me out, leaving me feeling emotionally involved. Credit for that goes to the film’s beautiful photography. I have never seen anything like Snowtown before and I think Justin Kurzel, who has done an extremely brave job, is a new Aussie talent.
Snowtown is now available on DVD and Blue Ray.