Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders) (review)

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Lucas Pittaway in Snowtown green light

Death of a Soul

Snowtown sounds happy and cheery and, you know, Christmassy, don’t it? Maybe that’s where Santa has a vacation home. Or surely Frosty lives there, no? “Hey, kids, let’s go to Snowtown!” “Hoorah!” But in much the same way that the seemingly pleasant “Love Canal” is associated in the minds of American with a particular sort of horror, so too is “Snowtown” shorthand for a nightmare in the minds of Australians. A hint: the notorious late 1990s “Snowtown murders” are also known as the “Bodies in Barrels murders.”

Snowtown the movie is the story of the killers. But not in any way that you’ve ever seen a tale of serial murder told before. This isn’t a police procedural — law enforcement is almost totally absent from this film — and it’s not a horror flick… at least not in the traditional sense. This isn’t about blood and gore, though there is some of that, but about a dysfunctional society that preys on itself, that is so bereft of hope or joy that creating vicious killers seems entirely natural and inevitable.

The weight of the emptiness of this world hangs heavy from the opening moments of the film, in a miserable suburb of Adelaide where too-small cinderblock houses sit atop one another and life seems to consist of standing around waiting for something to happen. (The murders and the film take their name from the South Australia town about 90 miles away where some of the bodies were initially discovered.) This is a place not just of economic deprivation but of a poverty of the soul and of the mind. There is an all-encompassing barrenness here that would feel almost alien to many viewers if it were not immediately recognizable as all too authentic.

Teenaged Jamie epitomizes the desperation: he’s a nice kid, but he doesn’t appear to understand the longing for something more that grips him. Newcomer actor Lucas Pittaway is entirely heartbreaking in how effortlessly he exudes Jamie’s nameless ache… and in how he makes plain the easy mark he is for a predator such as John Bunting. The new boyfriend of Jamie’s mother, Elizabeth’s (Louise Harris), Bunting engages Jamie in conversation, is friendly and kind: such small things, but nothing that Jamie has much of in his life. Bunting doesn’t need to do much at all in order to win over Jamie, and Australian TV actor Daniel Henshall doesn’t overdo the sociopathic charm. He, like Bunting himself, doesn’t need to.

Here’s the true horror of Snowtown: the life and soul have almost entirely been crushed out of Jamie even before Bunting arrives, by emotional and sexual abuse that director and coscreenwriter (with Shaun Grant) Justin Kurzel depicts so matter-of-factly that we take it as a given that it has been as much a part of Jamie’s existence as playing videogames with his little brothers. What we witness, we understand, is so routine as to go uncommented upon. By contrast, Bunting’s attentions are so entirely positive that even his odd behavior — as with his bizarre attempts at revenge on a neighborhood pedophile, consisting of a tossing bloody, gory carved-upon kangaroos on the man’s doorstep — is something Jamie readily joins in on.

Kurzel is so supremely confident a filmmaker (and this his first feature!) that Jamie’s seduction into Bunting’s murders, as he moves on from vermin animals to human beings, feels utterly unavoidable, as even Jamie himself comes to realize. There are moments in Snowtown that are uniquely distressing, moments in which Jamie almost appears to be watching himself from the outside, his absolute stillness at odds with his own revulsion at the acts Bunting compels him to participate in — silent tears mark Jamie’s surrender to what, it appears to him, is the only road life has laid before him.

This is a hard movie to endure. It is hugely emotionally suspenseful, and all of the suspense is of the dreadful kind: how much spirit can a person lose? how much can love demand on one front when you get no love elsewhere? But it may be one of the truest depictions I’ve ever seen of how far people — children, especially — will go in order to feel a sense of belonging, and how far those who don’t feel at all will go to pervert that. As a portrait of the raw edges of human nature, it is absolutely essential viewing.

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