Serial killers have often afforded some incredible results in terms of film: Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Zodiac etc. But very few have delved so deeply and boldly into the horrifying nature of the serial killer mind as Justin Kurzel's Snowtown. The film documents the journey of John Bunting and his reign as self-appointed vigilante of the outer suburbs of Adelaide. Known as Australia's worst serial killer, Bunting took the burden of ridding South Australia of homosexuals and pedophiles by torturing and killing them one by one.
We take up the story with a boy named Jamie Vlassakis: a typical Snowtown resident who begins the film being sexually exploited by his mother's new boyfriend and raped by his brother. John Bunting enters the story as the family's saviour, harassing the boyfriend until he leaves the neighbourhood by way of vandalising his house with everything from ice-cream to offal. John takes Jamie under his wing as a fellow vigilante, but things get a little more complicated when John reveals the extent of his own personal justice system.
The film has already raised a lot of kerfuffle from reviewers and critics, some claiming it to be a masterpiece, others claiming it to be depraved and disgusting. And while the violence involved in the film is certainly more winceworthy than the entire Saw boxset, I for one am definitely more in the masterpiece section.
Let's get one thing straight, this isn't a film you'll ever want to see again, that's provided you even see it in the first place. There's nothing especially endearing about it. But its power lies in the incredible magnetism it has; the ability to rivet the viewer's eyes to the screen whether they want to watch or not. This is largely due to Kurzel's direction. Shot astutely in docu-drama style, Kurzel's mis-en-scene and camerawork is fascinatingly unsettling. The large lack of formalist aspects other than the occassional slow-motion and the less occassional time-lapse, the realism embeds the film with the sense that what's happening onscreen isn't controlled; that it isn't just makeup and it's not just prosthetics, that what's happening onscreen is really happening. This is an entire world away from the deathtraps of Saw or the torture chambers of Hostel. Here every single thing is felt, down to the very core. And whilst most of the violence is offscreen, it's set up in such a way that it's more disturbing and cringeworthy than any number of Magnum eyeholes. But the film isn't just a string of violent scenes. The dramatic moments are suspend breathtakingly by the beautifully restrained direction and every nuance in every syllable rings through like a clanging bell. Being rooted in the monotony set up at the start of the film means that any subtle change is felt instantly and every look speaks volumes. It may lack the class and sophistication of Animal Kingdom but this is a different film which sits perfectly in Kurzel's lingering shots.
At the centre of the film is Daniel Henshall as John Bunting. His performance is so perfectly judged and executed, it's difficult to tear your eyes away from him, even at his most horrifying moments. The intensity that burns in his eyes as he stares Jamie down or the fascination as a man is strangled in front of him is shown with complete commitment and inhabitance by Henshall. He is equal parts charismatic and terrifying, able to say everything he has to with a single look. The realism Henshall injects into his character is the mark of a real talent. His character is thouroughly unlikeable and there are few redeeming qualities about him. The fact that his character is so magnetic and fascinating is a tribute to his amazing performance. Lucas Pittaway plays Jamie with a similar level of realism, though his character is less incendiary than Henshall's. But the huge contrast between his everyday self and his more extreme moments emotionally hits home every time. Louise Harris' performance as Jamie's mother Elizabeth is fantastic. She is an explosive presence at times as well as a pitiful one at others, powerless against the forces surrounding her despite her initial intentions. But it's Henshall's incredible, unbridled performance as Bunting which steals the show.
The script is incredibly restrained. There are no catch phrases which will slip into pop-culture, no poignant insights into what our characters are thinking. We are left with the bare minimum, relying on subtext to fill in the gaps. It is a credit to the actors and the director that every sentiment is felt depsite the lack of words to make their meaning explicit.
The film itself brings to light the seedy underbelly of society, where prejudices thrive and justice is in the eyes of the beholder. The separate society is remeniscent of Winter's Bone and the rules which apply to the rest of the world are simply optional here. It also speaks to the inner workings of hatred and anger. As Bunting watches teenage boy Jeffrey stand with a brick in each hand dressed in a skirt and blouse, we are given a little insight in this one short scene as to where the hatred which drives him is born.
It may not be as progressive as Animal Kingdom, as heartfelt as Gallipoli or become as nationally loved as The Castle but this is a noteworthy edition to the ranks of Australian cinema sure to raise eyebrows and opinions all over the world.
John hands Jamie a gun and sets him a target.