One of Australia's grisliest killing sprees gets the movie treatment.


4 stars





Director: Justin Kurzel

Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall


The family unit in Snowtown

Arriving amidst a blizzard of acclaim, Justin Kurzel's debut feature dramatises one of Australia's most notorious murders, when John Bunting was convicted of the deaths of 11 (or 12) people, all found in barrels of acid.


The murders took place between 1992 and 1999 and the subsequent trial in 2001 was the water cooler event of the year in Australia.


Kurzel's movie starts from a point of nauseated audio and struggling, ugly living environments, but does it give us enough to understand the hopeless breeding ground where a young man can be coerced into performing mass murder?


16 year old Jamie's family is invaded by a charismatic new father figure, when his mother receives the support of a local vigilante, drawing the boy into a social group bonded by confrontational anger. John Bunting, the guiding hand Jamie hopes will mend his fractured family, is now well known in his native country as the killer of 11 people. The events between August 1992 and May 1999, into which we watch Jamie irreversibly dragged, became known as the 'Bodies in Barrels' murders.


Snowtown - the boy on his bike wondering what to do

Daniel Henshall, the film's only professional actor, balances John's reassuring paternal support, extending inclusive handshakes from the family dinner table, with the hate-fuelled reactionary leadership of a charming psychotic.


Watching him reaching into Jamie's vulnerabilities and victimisations we can sense the reassurance this would provide to a directionless teenager, but as he manipulates the boy into hideous acts of cruelty, Henshall also portrays the intimidating trap of peer pressure with alarming familiarity.


Lucas Pittaway evokes a bleak distress at the inevitable but measured pace in which he falls into a bond of secrecy with this small group of men who torture and kill. John decides that transvestites and drug users in the community deserve to die and it's Jamie's bathroom where the drawn out crimes are perpetrated.


Though he wails in despair at first for the victims, eventually we see him numbed into a catatonic acceptance of John's beliefs.


Jamie's seduction appears to reflect the broader influence John's prejudices have on a community predominantly unemployed, and to some degree isolated by their poor mental health as much as their location.


Snowtown - a happy icecream eating session in Doomsville

The cast of victims and followers, all new to film, genuinely live in the area of South Australia where the events took place. Their performances were nurtured in rehearsals, informed by relevant regional experiences, which provide reactions of believable tortured victimisation that seem etched into their hunched body language. But this familiarity with the source material could have a negative effect on the clarity of the storytelling.


Unlike the filmmakers, those outside Australia are unlikely to have followed this court case in the media. Rather than being privy to the minutiae of 24 hour news and lurid tabloids, the audience could be confused by some of the information presented obliquely and with an unsettled pace which avoids thriller suspense.


Snowtown - the nasty serial killer approaches

The true-crime genre is often ideal for clarifying the motivations of those monsters in society for which we can see no explanation, but an uncertain timetable to the story and an unfamiliar and distressingly male dominated environment, (beauty is non-existent, a girlfriend is referenced unseen as if she was only in deleted scenes, women and sex are only discussed through jokes), leaves the viewer lacking enough information to decide if these characters are accurate depictions or distortions designed for effect.


The mood conjured is persuasively bleak and uncomfortable. Washed out landscapes and a sparse distorted soundtrack evoking their own form of psychosis, leave you feeling vulnerable and tense for a while after the credits.


It achieves this without the lascivious suspense of torture porn, but if it wanted to be a psychological examination of the boy led into hell, I am unsure I could clearly ascribe the motivations of those who followed Bunting into a lifestyle of atrocities.


That said, Snowtown is an exquisitely well-acted and directed film, which will linger in your psyche.


Justin Kurzel is definitely a name on the "one to watch" list.


Martin Oakley



Click down there for the trailer



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