Snowtown (2011)

Against the barren backdrop of Snowtown, South Australia, James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) and his two younger brothers are being abused by their mother’s boyfriend. Unable to even look at her boys anymore, Elizabeth (Louise Harris) seeks help from local vigilante John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) when a call to the authorities proves ineffective. With the perpetrator soon bullied out of town, John moves in with the family and begins to induct James into his crusade. Unable to escape from John’s influence, as the charismatic Bunting talks his way into the position of people’s champion, James watches in horror as anyone who doesn’t fit Bunting’s ideology – whether they are gay, handicapped or addicted to narcotics – is ruthlessly targeted, tortured and murdered.

While the discrepancy between independent and mainstream cinema is effectively universal, in recent years it has become increasingly marked in Australian filmmaking. Despite the likes of Crocodile Dundee, Red Dog and Baz Luhrman’s Australia having propagated a tourist-friendly image of happy-go-lucky neighbours and barbequeing beer-swillers, there has been a recent trend towards darker cinema with the likes of last year’s Animal Kingdom and even the “based on true events” Wolf Creek, which appear to address the skeletons in a nation’s closet. Even adolescent actioner Tomorrow, When The War Began boasted traces of xenophobia, just one hint amongst many of a cultural identity crisis.

The results have been particularly bleak, with Snowtown somehow one-upping even Animal Kingdom in terms of desolation and hopelessness. Also based on true events, début director Justin Kurzel aims to dramatise the murders orchestrated and perpetrated by Australia’s most prolific serial killer, John Bunting. A story as much about corruption as it is about the murders themselves, the narrative follows James Vlassakis as he is indoctrinated into the killer’s hate-filled world-view, alongside an impressionable community scared for the safety of their children.

Kurzel’s direction is unflinching, opening with a portentious dream that sets the tone with expert aplomb, just one of many subtle indicators of the road ahead. With jarring musical cues and washed-out cinematography, the oppressive atmosphere is building long before we even meet Bunting in person. Snowtown, or rather Salisbury North, is a forgotten world of suburban paranoia, unpoliced abuse and neglected isolation, as our stoic protagonist sleepwalks his way through a life of hardship and fear. When salvation finally presents itself, it quickly becomes clear that the worst has yet to come, as Bunting aims to fill a gap in the justice system with a streak of warped vigilantism aimed at first towards child-abusers, but then quickly spreading to encapsulate homosexuals, drug addicts and even the overweight.

Daniel Henshall is absolutely terrifying as John Bunting, his rosy cheeks masking a hatred and prejudice that is as unnerving as it is horribly compelling. The closest the Vlassakis’ have ever come to a father figure, his youthful, baby-faced demeanour only serves to emphasise the harrowing and abhorrent nature of his actions. As he pauses dinner in order to demand that James shoot his dog, a horror that later events somehow manage to trivialise by comparison, the tension is almost too much to bear. It is in James’ ghostly reactions, however, that the film weilds its true power; his broken, thousand-yard stare and inevitable complicity in the crimes themselves proving the elements that will haunt you long after the blood stops flowing.

Whereas the cannibalistic, repellent clans of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are drawn as borderline-cartoonish hillbillies, in Snowtown – where, in reality, Bunting fried and ate part of his eleventh victim – the self-serving community of bigots and zealots are all too real, slowly desensitised through violence. Played entirely by newcomers, the characters are sickeningly recognisable, as they quickly and ruthlessly turn on anyone who disagrees with their beliefs. The sequences set around a grotty dinner table as each character boasts their preferred method of torture, is almost as unnerving as the killings themselves. When one sceptical individual proffers that they’re all bravado and wouldn’t deliver on their promises should the occasion arise, you genuinely fear for his life as you realise just how wrong he really is.

With its irredeemable characters, depressed visuals and explicit violence, Snowtown is not a movie to which you will likely return. Gnawing, disgusting and utterly despairing, however, it is a film that deserves to be seen. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at Skippy the same way again.

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

One Response to Snowtown (2011)

  1. Pingback: March 2012 – Fire all things that go bang! « popcornaddict

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