If you, like me, belong to the generation whose only reference to Australian life is Neighbours, to say you'll be shocked by Justin Kurzel's debut film - Snowtown - is an understatement. Brutal and consistently disturbing from beginning to end, this film follows the events surrounding the notorious Snowtown murders committed by the so-called Snowtown Killers in Australia between the years 1992 and 1999.
The film is set in Adelaide's Northern suburbs, a community that has been overlooked by not only the sun but also mainstream Australia. It is a broken neighbourhood where poverty, drug-use and sexual abuse are prevalent, harbouring resentments in a community that has been given little hope. Not exactly first-date material then. It's not what I'd call a pleasant watch but perhaps a necessary one. It leaves one asking why, in contemporary society, a crime so horrendous as these murders took place and went undetected for so long.
The story of the Snowtown murders is chronicled through the eyes of Jamie Vlassakis, a sixteen year old boy who is introduced to a family friend - John Bunting. A father-son-like friendship ensues and Jamie soon finds himself manipulated into the twisted mindset of Australia's most prolific serial killer. Using an entirely local cast with the exception of Daniel Henshell as John Bunting, the characterisation in this film could not be better.
Henshell in particular manages to act the supportive father role and screwed-up psycho killer with such commendable ease. He offers Jamie a haven in a world where he has little else - cooking him proper meals, letting him stay at his house and making his mother happy. His comfortable beard and crinkly eyes make his actions all the more disturbing as he hacks the head off dead kangaroos and follows this with a bloody killing spree. The dark and light of John makes the film so much more powerful.
Lucas Pittaway as Jamie is especially convincing as a vulnerable teenager. Doe-eyed and simple, his story is the most menacing example of corrupted innocence. His part in the murders seem to arise from a combination of fear and loyalty. From the abused to abuser, Jamie's role continually raises the question whether you would have done any different if you had experienced the same. It's that age-old nature vs nurture discussion. Kurzel said of this- “I never wished to examine this question as a way of exusing Jamie's actions but rather to better understand how a young person could be complicit in such crimes.”
It is not just the cast of real faces that help make Snowtown so disturbing but the physical enviroment that creates such haunting realism. Kurzel spoke of how it was important that this film “was told from the inside out.” If that meant he wanted the story to be told with such authenticity that you felt you were sitting around the table smoking cigerettes with the characters on screen then he achieved this.
The realism of this film was heightened by such a minimal soundtrack and many scenes were accompanied by the sound of a heartbeat. Writing it down, a heartbeat sound seems cliché but I think it worked. It will run in parallel to your own, at just the right moments. The presence of too much music would seem out of place in a film constructed of unobtrusive filming and a stark, bleak environment. Snowtown didn't need a busy soundtrack because it spoke volumes without it.
I have no qualms in stating that this is the most shocking piece of cinema I have ever seen. Looking at other reviews it appears there were many walk-outs during screenings of this film and I would be curious as to whether this is due to it being unwatchable to those that are squeamish or whether people actually found it offensive. I think it is important to point out that what this film spoke about was attempted truth without glorification. It is not a horror movie. The makers of this film worked hard to create a geniune interpretation of events.
Justin Kurzel points out that “It was vital for the northern suburb communities to have some kind of ownership and involvement in the telling of this story.” So whether or not it is at times unwatchable, it is not so much the film that is so completely offensive but the fact of the Snowtown Murders. Having something censored won't make it disappear and the film raises issues that need to be addressed. Snowtown was an incredible film; harrowing, clever and surprisingly human. I honestly urge you to see this film, and if you do your popcorn will probably remain untouched.
Snowtown will be released in the UK on Friday 18th November 2011.