Snowtown (2011)
By: Julian on October 18, 2011  | 
DVD
Madman | Region 4, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 115 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris
Screenplay: Shaun Grant
Country: Australia
External Links
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Most Australians would at least know of the Snowtown murders, or the 'bodies-in-barrels' killings. The country's worst serial killings were perpetrated by John Bunting, Robert Wagner, James Vlassakis and Mark Haydon – twelve people were murdered and their bodies were disposed of at various locations in South Australia, including in a disused bank vault in Snowtown. The murders, which took place throughout the nineties, are dramatised in Justin Kurzel's debut, a disturbing tour de force, and one of the most thoroughly demoralising and nihilistic Australian movies I have ever seen.

Lucas Pittaway plays Jamie Vlassakis, a 16 year old lad who lives with his mother and two brothers in a dingy Adelaide home. Not long into the film, we see the mistreatment Jamie and his brothers are subjected to at the hands of their mother's friend; he strips the boys and photographs them. Enter John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) and his gang of mates. Bunting devotes a lot of his time to taunting Jamie's tormentor, first by encouraging the boys to write obscenities on his windows, then throwing kangaroo carcasses on the man's doorstep.

Bunting and his cronies are consumed by the inherent failings of the criminal justice system with respect to perpetrators of child abuse, although Bunting is incapable of distinguishing between men like the Vlassakis' abuser, and homosexuals who teach at schools or the intellectually disabled. Bunting's irrational perspective of social justice and his hyper-violent rhetoric escalates into all-out violence as he and his friends begin killing those people he deems a threat. Meanwhile, Bunting grooms Jamie to do his bidding.

Snowtown is such an extremely powerful movie in no small part due to the incredible performances of the two leads, Pittaway and Henshall. Henshall, in particular, is excellent as Bunting – covered in facial hair, sporting a pot belly and an even bigger mouth after a few beers, Henshall's Bunting seems to be a normal bloke. His efforts to oust the Vlassakis' tormenter are extreme, but we're hardly on the side of the man we saw molest the boys. Those with even a passing familiarity with the Snowtown case, though, will know from the outset that Bunting is a stone-cold killer, a warped psychopath of the highest order, but the fact that we are almost led to forget this for the first act of the film is a testament to Henshall's restrained and nuanced performance. It's also incredible to note that most of the key performers (including Pittaway, but not Henshall) were basically plucked off the street to star in this feature – they are not professional actors, and that makes their award-worthy performances all the more impressive.

If the film's turning point isn't when the innards are thrown onto the child molester's patio, then it is definitely the dinnertime scene with Bunting, his dog, and Jamie. This is the point when Bunting ceases to become a father figure to Jamie and morphs into a fearsome manipulator who gets his way with brute psychological force. It's at this point too that the killings start, not simply murders that clinically despatch those people whom Bunting believes to be scourges of society, but highly personalised torture killings. Only one murder of the eleven committed by Bunting and his gang is depicted in detail here, and it is an utterly gruelling experience. Kurzel films it unflinchingly; it is grimy, upsetting and without one iota of glorification or vindication (even though we saw that victim perpetrate an awful act earlier in the film).

I must add at this point that in spite of what some film critics have said, this is not a gratuitous film. We are privy to the explicit detail of one murder, and that detail was necessary in order to show the pure, unadulterated evil of Bunting. This unrelentingly grim sequence also completes Jamie's indoctrination – his forced complicity in the murder makes him, from that point on, completely malleable to Bunting. Depicting the complete process of the murder also completely undermines Bunting's professed motive (although Bunting's crimes would soon transcend the flimsy, often-baseless justifications he gave as he simply resorted to killing those who 'wouldn't be missed'): he is, in the words of the judge who presided over the criminal proceedings in the South Australian Supreme Court, a man who 'killed for pleasure'.

Shaun Grant's script is where many of Snowtown's strengths and also its few weaknesses lie. Grant does not, in a way which would have been very easy considering the subject matter, make too many moral judgments about the characters that he depicts, especially Jamie. The dialogue is also excellent – it comes off as natural, and the way in which the actors deliver the lines could not be any better. More importantly, though, is how Grant gradually ramps up to fever-pitch the rhetoric that Bunting delivers – the process of indoctrination is plain to see, and it enables Bunting to bring Jamie into his homicidal fold with some ease. Where Grant's script falls down is the swiftness with which he introduces new characters – too many, too soon, too confusing. The film requires a lot of focus, because missing any of these characters can make it difficult later on.

By the end of the film, the viewer is offered no reprieve, even though most viewers are going to know the outcome of the case from the outset. Text before the closing credits gives us closure, but we aren't given the pleasure of seeing Bunting or any of his men hauled away by the police. But the director and screenwriter had no intention of offering any kind of moral resolution. This approach might be more confronting, but it certainly adds depth. The content is repellent and the proceedings are thoroughly bleak – and the newcomer performers, and newcomer director in Kurzel, do an absolutely first-class job. Make no mistake: no element of Snowtown is exploitative. It is, as Kurzel eloquently puts it, "a contemporary Australian story, one of our darkest chapters" – Grant and Kurzel tell the story sensitively and very powerfully. Highly recommended.
Video
The video was presented in 16:9. The film is crisp and clear. The cinematography is often dark, not pervasively so, and it adds to the movie's grimness.
Audio
English audio, presented in Dolby 5.1, with English subtitles. The audio track is fine. The music and sound design is excellent; the score is a particularly foreboding element of Snowtown.
Extra Features
True to form, Madman has compiled a comprehensive set. An audio commentary with Kurzel; three deleted scenes, totalling 17-minutes (with optional commentary); a 24-minute interview with Kurzel; casting footage with Pittaway, Henshall and Louise Harris (who played Elizabeth); three of Kurzel's short films (titled Blue Tongue, Bell and Pulse); a 5-minute feature 'The Snowtown Crimes' (which is just rolling text – something more substantial could have been included here, but that's just nit-picking); a teaser; theatrical trailer; stills gallery and trailers for other Madman films (Animal Kingdom, Ten Empty, Candy and Van Dieman's Land).

The best of the bunch are the commentary and Kurzel interview – both features are informative, and Kurzel is an engaging speaker.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This is a phenomenal film. The confronting and relatively recent subject matter can make this a particularly raw and claustrophobic experience, but those who persist will be rewarded with pitch-perfect performances, vivid direction and an exceptional screenplay. Seek it out immediately; this is the best Australian film you'll see this year.

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