Between August 1992 and May 1999, eleven people were murdered by John Justin Bunting and his accomplices in Southern Australia (a twelfth charge was dropped due to lack of evidence). The bodies were found stored inside barrels of acid located in a former bank building in Snowtown, South Australia on 20 May 1999. Four people, including Bunting, were arrested and charged over the murders.
The Australian film Snowtown attempts to document the facts and examine the broken lives around these killings. Rather than dwell on the salacious details of what were particularly distressing crimes, director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant move to the side and focus primarily on the relationship between John Bunting and a teenage boy called James Vlassakis (who eventually gave evidence against the other people involved).
Bunting arrives in the impoverished neighbourhood where Vlassakis lives with his divorced mother and feckless brothers, and begins a ruthless campaign against the local paedophiles causing such a problem in the area. He strikes up, and carefully cultivates, a father-son relationship with Vlassakis, gradually drawing the boy into an inner circle of morally bankrupt torturers and murderers. By the time the teenager fully understands what is happening, he’s already willingly implicated himself in the murders. In the meantime, Bunting’s attention has moved on from child abusers – who were only ever a shallow means of justifying his lust for killing – and towards homosexuals, drug addicts, the homeless, even someone who once insulted his flip-flops…the more he kills, the less he feels the need to justify his actions.
The performances are first rate. Lucas Pittaway – who had never acted before being cast for the film – is nothing short of a revelation as Vlassakis: physically bruised, psychologically damaged, and completely lost in the emptiness of his own life. Daniel Henshall invests the character of Bunting with a crude charm and a mood that turns on a sixpence, and it’s easy to understand why so many desperate people were be taken in by his Alpha male act. He presents a surface image of strength and confidence, beneath which lies a terrifyingly fragile sense of self-esteem that, when broken, leads to moments of extreme violence. Louise Harris gives a wrenching turn as Vlassakis’ mother, a defeated woman who grasps hold of denial as if it were a life preserver. In a way, that’s exactly what it is.
The direction is flawless. Many films about true-life crime cases never quite manage to lose their glossy cinematic veneer, but Snowtown is so real, so gritty and so unutterably bleak in tone, that it often seems as if documentary footage has been included in the edit. Yet, at times, there’s a raw visual poetry to the filmmaking that elevates the material to a higher level, giving insights into a very human evil that resonates so deeply it hurts to look. But look we must; it’s impossible not to.
Onscreen violence is kept to a minimum, but the single protracted scene of torture and murder in the film is truly unforgettable in its sheer brutality – both physical and emotional. The voices of the dead are heard in tapes recorded by Bunting and left on telephone answer machines: heartbreaking missives from the very edge of existence; whispered farewells, disjointed, half-hearted explanations as to why these people will never be seen again, all recited against static shots of everyday suburban squalor.
The whole thing is carried off with such unflinching conviction and integrity that it achieves the level of cinematic masterpiece. No other film of this type has travelled so far, and penetrated so deeply, into the banal, loveless heart of human evil. So many seemingly innocuous images take on a terrifying resonance: an expansive Australian sky, a row of plastic barrels, a stained bathtub, a teenager’s thousand-yard stare, and in the final scene, a slowly closing door that once shut can never be opened again.
Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown opens in a rundown suburb of Australia; its protagonists are the kind of people we’re all too used to laughing at or dismissing as scum – the jobless, the uneducated, the discarded and unwanted. Liz (Louise Harris) presides over a family of five boys, including Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) – a gentle, passive teenager at the outset – who remains the focus of the film. When Liz learns that Geoffrey, an apparently kindly neighbour who’s offered to babysit her kids, has been molesting them she informs the police, only for the neighbour to be released. Shortly thereafter a new man enters Liz’s life, John (Daniel Henshall). Initially he seems a prize catch – solicitous, caring, happy to be a friend and father to the boys. John mounts a campaign of harassment against Geoffrey, finally forcing him to move, and then turns his attention to other paedophiles and homosexuals (terms he regards as interchangeable) in the area, aided by his mates Mark and Robert – and, in the end, by Jamie too.
If John’s actions begin as a form of vigilantism, borne out of frustration with a failed system, the violence ultimately becomes an end in itself; by the end of the film, he is the leader of the most prolific gang of serial killers in Australian history.
The film is based on the real-life ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ case, but it’s a million miles away from any ‘movie of the week’ about serial killers you may have seen. Kurzel films Snowtown as if it’s a documentary; a scene where Jamie is raped by his elder brother is filmed through an open doorway in one wide shot, while a sports commentary plays over the event. It isn’t dramatised, just played out for the camera’s unwavering, pitiless eye. The terrible banality of evil and cruelty suffuses the film, along with an ever-intensifying atmosphere of threat and violence. There’s far less on-screen violence in Snowtown than you think, but the threat of it pervades every frame.
Which is not to say there’s no violence at all. The one murder that takes place in front of us is a sickening, harrowing affair, infinitely graphic, agonised and prolonged. It seems to last forever. It’s also the scene in which Jamie finally becomes complicit in the murders.
The performances from Snowtown’s largely unknown cast are uniformly excellent, but dominating the film are those of Daniel Henshall as John and Lucas Pittaway as Jamie. Henshall is terrifyingly mercurial, switching in a heartbeat from good-natured geniality to murderous and violent. Initially appearing as a friendly ‘bloke next door’, likeable but quite capable of being tough in a good cause, he grows increasingly manipulative and controlling as he seeks to ‘make a man’ of Jamie according to his warped concept of masculinity. The mask slips more and more over the course of the film, until we’re left with a dead-eyed killer, barely even bothering to hide it anymore. Pittaway in his turn charts Jamie’s downward spiral from innocent victim to desensitised killer with admirable intensity and courage.
Snowtown is one of the bleakest and most harrowing films of recent years, shining a cold light on people and places we normally don’t like to think about. It is far from an easy film to see, but it is a brilliant and compelling piece of cinema. And it will haunt you.
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