Snowtown - movie review
Who's saying what
Whatever it is, nothing about South Australia is more unsettling than its history of violence - and of that history no case was more difficult to fathom than the Snowtown murders.
Does Snowtown, the stunning debut feature from director Justin Kurzel, go any way to explaining how or why "Snowtown" happened? Yes and no, but to provide answers or redemption regarding what happened is not its responsibility. As a piece of art, however, Snowtown is nearly faultless.
Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is sixteen and drifting through life in Adelaide's bleak northern suburbs: hanging out at the shops, playing Sega Master System, spending time with his younger brothers, moving through the bleak landscape of the housing trust homes like a ghost. Just as the boys' mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) feels her ability to protect her sons slipping away, a charismatic drifter appears on a motorcycle to help sort out their problems.
It would seem romantic if we didn't already know that this cheerful bloke is, in fact, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall).
Soon enough John becomes a self-styled surrogate dad to Jamie and his brothers: where once they sat through congealed eggs and stiff spaghetti with no sauce, he cooks exciting food; he makes them feel safe and puts a smile on their mum's face for the first time in ages.
So, when he starts running impromptu community meetings at the kitchen table to discuss the local Police's uselessness in keeping the local kids safe, what's not to like? Finally someone is taking a stand on behalf of these neglected people; it's not hard to find yourself amazed at what a great guy this John bloke is.
The reality of his vigilante justice becomes quickly evident - as it runs from cleaning up the streets to dispatching whichever easy targets he can - and so too his plans to mould Jamie into his protege become inevitable.
In a way, detailing the plot of Snowtown is irrelevant: not because we "know what happens" (which we do, even given the film's slight artistic license), but because in a way, it is a mood piece, a prolonged character study that slowly tightens its grip on you.
Kurzel, working from Shaun Grant's excellent screenplay, plays deftly with the audience's sympathies until it becomes clear that it's impossible to know who to trust, and the hopelessness that elicits is profound.
The South Australian landscape, whose Fleurieu Way was recently shot in such golden tones for Scott Hicks' The Boys Are Back, reveals its other personality here: a land of greyed, damp expanses and existentially confounding plains. The housing estate becomes a visual metaphor, without fanfare, for the people whose lives became intertwined with Bunting and his followers: shanties made of Fibro with perpetually open doors and windows, braced with little more than plastic strips and useless flywire, there is no security in Snowtown's world. Evil could slip right in the front door, which of course it does.
The cast - comprised, with the exception of Henshall, of unknowns from the local communities - is uniformly excellent. It's a film filled with literally career-making performances (Pittaway, for example, was about to join the army. Let's hope that's off the cards now).
Henshall is remarkable as the charismatic, terrifying Bunting. His performance is unlike any screen psycho in recent years precisely because his interpretation of Bunting ponders - but wisely, never determines - exactly how the Snowtown killings unfolded. (He didn't meet the real Bunting, and given the number of suppression orders still covering much of the case, it may never be clear whether Bunting was, as they say, mad or bad.)
Pittaway's Jamie is heartbreaking. He briefly blossoms in Bunting's presence until his fate becomes clear and he gradually drains of feeling, ending the film a dead-eyed husk. As Elizabeth, Harris finds a beautiful combination of pride and fragility; like her son, as she realises that her saviour is anything but, her steely resolve becomes a stunned husk. Richard Green is also wonderful as the offbeat and ultimately tragic Barry.
Jed Kurzel's tense, percussive score and Adam Arkapaw's evocative cinematography create a mood that punctuates dreamlike (or nightmarish, if you prefer) stretches with brutality.
For the most part, Snowtown is not a "horror" film, despite the horrors of the story, though there is one sustained and extremely upsetting scene of torture. However, unlike so many "torturecore" films, there is no frisson or eroticism at play here; instead, the scene does away with any sense you might have had of Bunting's humanity. Like Jamie, you come out the other side of the scene profoundly affected.
Debate as to whether Australian cinema "only" makes films concerned with grim or depressing subject matter will no doubt reach a crescendo with the release of Snowtown, but such griping is immaterial (and should be anyway, since we're also quite capable of making films of wonderful brightness and optimism) in the face of film-making this strong. There is no question, though, that Snowtown is grim: it's as grim as it gets.
To say that Snowtown is wonderful, or beautiful (which are the two words that keep springing to mind when I think about the film) feels somehow wrong, as though praising it in that manner somehow implies a sort of acceptance or endorsement of the real life events. Nothing could be further from the truth: the real "Snowtown" was about as unfathomable as crime gets, and the movie version contains murder, rape, animal cruelty and an abiding sense of hopelessness that affects you on a deep level.
But Snowtown, in spite of that, is a wonderful film. An incredible piece of cinema and a devastating, poetic work of storytelling, Snowtown is unmissable.
- Five stars
Snowtown opens in cinemas Thursday, May 19.
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