How do you depict the darkest chapter of Australian criminal history without either sensationalising it or falling prey to a steadfast loyalty to the facts that renders the story stale and perfunctory? First time filmmaker Justin Kurzel has managed to walk a fine line between these two extremes, in the process pulling off the unthinkable – a genuinely great film, one that reconfigures the infamous South Australian murder spree of the late 1990’s into a bold cinematic document that will resonate and chill audiences for the portrait it offers of a fathomless emptiness that cannot be rationally theorised by psychology textbooks.
The world inhabited by the people of Snowtown may not be the commercially viable perception of Australian life many seek to enhance nourishment of our national consciousness but in dramatic terms it succeeds on every level despite the often uncomfortable subject matter it addresses; topics like incest and paedophilia generally tend to leave a bad aftertaste in audiences’ mouths. But Snowtown is horribly bloated with relevance in its examination of guilt, societal ills and the apathy that allows evil to thrive; within lies a terrifying reminder of what surges beneath the mundane exterior of suburban life, as dormant and unsuspecting as a cancer waiting to take shape in our bloodstream.
When an impoverished family, staunchly led by mother Liz Harvey (Louise Harris) allow family friend John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) into their home, little do they realise the long-term implications; they’re effectively providing a haven for a monster, a man who imagines himself a father figure capable of drawing people together to defeat a common enemy. His focus lands squarely on Jaime (Lucas Pittaway), a forlorn, dispirited figure sleepwalking through his life like a ghost waiting to be led to an exorcism. Within a short time, Bunting looms largest in his sight - a figure with sharply defined edges who shapes him into a follower through an adherence to his notions of routine and discipline. It’s the commencement of a dark initiation that will draw Jaime inexorably into becoming an accomplice to a murderous spree.
Though the tone of the film couldn’t be grimmer, Snowtown achieves a lyrical dark poetry in its sublime, admirably suppressed diversion into this heart of darkness - an evil emanating from Bunting firstly from a despise for homosexuals and paedophiles before progressing to a senseless broader predilection for ruthless revenge. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant’s portrait is admirably detached in its cold-blooded recounting of the crumbling domesticity camouflaging these crimes.
The performances are sublimely good across the board; the fact that most are film debutants, whilst others still are non-professionals, makes the uniformity all the more remarkable. Henshall exudes the magnetism required to portray Bunting and his fatally attractive contradictions; we are readily persuaded of the man’s capacity to subtly engineer shifting dynamics without this frayed, downtrodden community by imposing his will through gentle reassurances and a verbal dexterity that allows him to take charge without being overly demonstrative in their presence.
In assessing Pittaway’s contribution an obvious parallel is the equally startling performance of James Frecheville in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010). Both are crime films with a basis in fact; both are stories largely viewed through the eyes of innocent youths drawn into a destructive web of illegality and moral corruption. Though Animal Kingdom’s world seems relatively tame compared to the relentless bleakness offered by Snowtown, both debuting actors rise to the challenge, impressively internalising much of the turmoil and anguish that compels them to the brink of adulthood before their time.
Kurzel’s direction, in concert with the gritty, in your face stylings of Animal Kingdom cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s camerawork, gives the film an uncompromising, naturalistic aesthetic that cements its future status as a landmark work. At key junctures, the director uses dialogue-free reflections to inject potent symbolic moments into the narrative, like a raised shot late in the game of a car poised at a crossroads before continuing on, eschewing a redemptive detour. Another moment too stands out: there is no more painful reminder or encapsulation of innocence lost than a constricted Jaime’s walk-out from the unfolding horrors of his brother’s torture, only to view with abject despair the innocuous sight of three contented children strolling by on the other side of the street with their bicycles, oblivious to the mortifying, soul-destroying crime taking place within a stone’s throw.
Snowtown is a stunner, a demanding, visceral, utterly engrossing movie experience from first frame to last. With it’s painful, fact-based context, searing performances and instinctive direction this is a film that will continue to burrow into the subconscious of all who witness it. The final scenes generate a remarkably palpable tension, mainly through the hypnotic use of Jed Kurzel’s intuitive, understated score; even as we guess at the outcome, a sense of electricity sparks the heart-stopping premonition of doom that descends.
Review by David O’Connell