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Snowtown - Review


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

JUSTIN Kurzel’s directorial debut Snowtown lifts the lid on one of ‘Australia’s most notorious serial killers’ in the most sober fashion imaginable.

Rather than opting for a sensationalist approach to the ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders of 1999 and recreating them in every grizzly detail (as some filmmakers may have opted to do), Kurzel has chosen to examine the psychology of what took place.

What’s more, he allows things to unfold through the eyes of one of the four perpetrators… not charismatic ring-leader John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) but rather Jamie Vlassakis (played by newcomer and Snowtown local Lucas Pittaway), the teenager groomed by Bunting to become a killer.

The ensuing film is unrelentingly grim and isn’t without moments of shocking violence. But at its heart lies a gritty examination of what may have led Vlassakis to participate in the crimes based upon his need to find a father-figure in Bunting.

For those unacquainted with the history at play, the film picks up as 16-year-old Jamie is first introduced to Bunting after an encounter with a paedophile who happens to be living across the road.

Given Bunting’s hatred for sex offenders, Jamie finds someone who is prepared to do what the law cannot and it isn’t long before the charismatic new arrival is living with Jamie, his mother Elizabeth and two younger brothers, Alex and Nicholas.

But while Bunting’s presence at first provides a stability to his family that was hitherto unknown, his righteous indignation at the number of alleged sex offenders and drop-outs in the area, coupled with his threats of taking violent action, arouse suspicion, particularly as members of the community begin to disappear.

Once Jamie finds out the lengths to which Bunting is prepared to go, however, he finds himself completely under the killer’s wing and forced [at first] to participate in his heinous crimes.

Kurzel’s film is all the more remarkable given that it marks his feature debut. Whereas some directors may have looked to make a flashy statement of intent, Kurzel refrains from sensationalising any of the murders, opting instead for a meticulously researched approach that both takes into account the feelings of the community he is depicting and the need to remain as close to fact as possible.

Hence, while the grimness of what took place is never in doubt, and sometimes difficult to watch as it unfolds on screen (albeit in limited fashion), the emotional complexity of what is at play very much takes centre-stage.

Kurzel’s film is more an attempt to understand the crimes and Jamie’s participation in them rather than to make Bunting any more famous and, as such, Pittaway gives a haunting performance as the teenager whose own abuses were exploited for Bunting’s gain.

Strong, too, is Henshall’s portrayal of Bunting – charismatic, friendly and nurturing one minute, yet cold, calculated and prone to violence the next. He is a terrifying presence, yet an Everyman one at that, which makes the performance chilling and authentic.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, particularly as many were sourced from the surrounding community, while Kurzel’s direction feels almost like a fly-on-the-wall such is the authenticity he brings to proceedings.

Hence, what unfolds is a downbeat, often claustrophobic piece of filmmaking that is to be experienced more than enjoyed. That doesn’t make the achievement any less impressive, of course, as that is exactly how it should be given the nature of its subject matter.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 118mins
UK Release Date: November 18, 2011