So here's the first of what I hope will be at least a few review-themed posts. They won't all be as long as this but I guess I just had a lot to say about this film... Next time I'm going to do a 'recommendations' post with bulletpoints and general quickness! Enjoy :)!
Snowtown, a 2010 film directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, really is based on true events—those of the ‘Snowtown murders’ which occurred in Southern Australia between 1992 and 1999. This is a fascinating if utterly repellent study of the relationships between the ‘gang’ of murderers which developed and ultimately influenced the outcome of one of Australia’s most notorious serial murder cases. I’m not really informed enough about the case to discuss it here, but it’s definitely worth a little internet research if you’re going to watch the film. As far as I know the entire cast, excluding the actor who plays John Bunting, are all non-actors who were residents of the Adelaide suburb ravaged by the murders. If you do watch it look out for Louise Harris who plays the protagonist's mother--there's something very tragic about her performance, and it's my favourite of the bunch, although they're all fantastic! Also, snaps for being an independent low-budget movie.
So I watched Snowtown right off the back of Wolf Creek because I think I was a little enthralled by the possibilities of Australian horror, but also because I’d heard really great things about the film. And man alive, if I thought Wolf Creek was terrifying because it was realistic, was I in for an ungodly wake-up call with Snowtown. Snowtown is terrifying, but in a totally different way to Wolf Creek, which feels hyper-kinetic and steeped in melodrama (the good kind) by comparison. That’s saying something since many people criticize Wolf Creek for being ‘dull’ due to its forty-minute let’s get to know the characters before we shish kabob them technique (I loved it, audience cruelty and all) and ‘obscene’ because of its cinema verite depiction of sadistic violence. Really the only things the two films have in common is the fact they’re both set in Australia and based on true murder cases in the country’s history (with varying degrees of verisimilitude). Apart from that, there’s really nothing of the relative fictitious safety of Wolf Creek to cling onto. Sure, there’s no astounding geographical isolation, no Mick Dundee outback psychopath running around with a Bowie hunting knife and a borderline torture-porn mentality when it comes to offing his victims. But the inverted horror of Snowtown is what makes it, for me, so terrifying.
At 119 minutes and with an emphasis on the nuances of the characters’ relationships and psychology, Snowtown is what I’d call a simmering pot. Calling it a slow burner would imply there’s some kind of climactic explosion at the conclusion, which there isn’t. It’s more a very chilling period, or a punch in the solar plexus that makes you bend double to muffle the pain of the impact. When the film closes and the credits roll, with a disconcertingly jaunty piece of music, you are left feeling cold and kind of derelict—something like the abandoned bank vault where all the bodies were stored alone and forgotten for so many years.
You know, thinking about it now I don’t even know if I would call Snowtown a ‘horror’ movie, because it certainly isn’t a conventional one. There is very little gore aside from some severed kangaroo limbs (the noise that accompanies the image is even more disturbing) and a particularly gruelling torture scene which plays a pivotal part in the narrative—and it’s because the film is not exploring body horror (despite the grisly subject matter), but psychological horror. Or, if this doesn’t sound too pretentious, the many shifting faces of horror. The real achievement of Wolf Creek was its exploitation of the landscape, the unforgivingness of nature. The vastness and desolation of the outback crushed any possibility of hope in that movie. The characters were stranded out in the middle of nowhere and nobody was looking for them. The thing with Snowtown is that it all takes place in this densely populated and moribund suburb of a major Australian city where crime is rife and the authorities don’t care. In steps John Bunting, who in its despair and abandonment, the community scraping by on government benefits looks to as a leader, a dispenser of justice, and to the main character, a father figure. Charming and charismatic, John soon ingratiates himself into the heart of the community scarred by paedophilia and drug abuse. He champions ideologies which border on hypothetical lynch mob operations against those deemed morally corrupt. It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that John does not discriminate between paedophiles and homosexuals, obese people, drug addicts and the mentally handicapped. His highly amiable facade begins to crack and splinter, or maybe he’s choosing to slip the mask off himself, giving glimpses of something truly monstrous lurking just below the surface. It is the insidiousness, the perniciousness, the snake-like perversion of domesticity which is truly horrifying. John is like a black hole; as soon as he walks into the room you are sucked into him with a force beyond human reckoning, no matter how much you resist. He reflects no light, he is merciless, and yet he seems to seek approval from the 16 year old protagonist—the transformation of whom from timid victim to casual murderer is almost unpalatable.
I’m always fascinated in situations like this when there is a pack of killers—because it definitely feels predatory and calculated in the extreme—by the bonds formed between them. Aren’t they afraid of one another? Are they so removed from humanity they believe they are outside it, that they don’t suspect they could fall victim to the same atrocities they are committing? How can they trust each other so? How does one get to that point where killing one’s friend or brother or neighbour is second nature, is so callous it’s almost banal?
The horror of it is the banality of the horror itself. Does that make sense? The fact that an entire community was aware to varying degrees of the horror unfolding, that so many people were complicit and did nothing, didn’t question the abrupt messages left on answering machines by loved ones? There’s a scene which sums up this centrifugal theme of evil finding its place in the home when the complicit characters walk twenty yards from a living room where a child sits watching TV to the backyard and a shed which contains corpses stuffed into bin bags.
There were a couple of points in the film when I thought ‘I can’t watch this, I have to get out’ because the level of reality was so claustrophobic and intense, the pervading grimness so unrelenting. But I persevered, stamping my feet and whimpering to compensate for the brutality of what I was witnessing, and the end left me utterly drained. It is an exceptional piece of cinema.
As an addendum to the review, the score for Snowtown, composed by the director’s brother, truly carries the film. That is not to understate the film’s power in any measure, but simply to say that the music so encapsulates the film that when the director first heard it he altered the beginning and end of the script. It is the beating heart of the film, in the same note both seductive and disturbingly insidious.
Predictably, as soon as I bought the album it became available on YouTube, so go have a listen! My favourite track is ‘The Dance’.