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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