Justin Kruzel's remarkable feature debut takes a very visceral look into what the media dubbed, 'the bodies in the barrels' murders. What it reveals is as equally horrifying--as it is heartbreakingly mundane.
The film follows Elizabeth Harvey, a mother raising her three boys in a poor suburb. After her latest boyfriend displays pedophilic tendencies, she takes up with a new man, hoping for security--but instead welcoming an even more vicious predator into her home. John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) is the moral compass of a self-appointed neighborhood watch who, fueled by cigarettes and beer, cast judgments on those living around them. Bunting enlists his crew in acts of sadistic vigilantism on those he considers deviants, and in the process takes Elizabeth's son Jamie under his wing. "The Snowtown Murders" is an uncompromising film focuses on the relationship between vulnerable teenager and a father figure--who is revealed to be the worst kind of bully.
John's friendly demeanor hides a coldness that's unfathomable. It slowly reveals itself at impromptu "neighborhood watch" meetings at the dinner table, where John holds court and proselytizes about the other supposed molesters, perverts, and undesirables in the town. It becomes clear that he wants to rid the village of the people he views as objectionable, and he doesn't find much argument from his neighbors. Soon, talk turns to action. John becomes a killer (maybe he already was one), quietly murdering random townsfolk who he has deemed expendable, with some of his neighbors turning a blind eye to his actions or actively assisting in the crimes. Jamie's involvement goes even further.
It's the unhealthy relationship between John and Jaime that is the centerpiece of "The Snowtown Murders"-- the mentor-protege pairing is sad, and in a helpless way, inevitable, because of how easily John manipulates the younger man. Abused and neglected for so long, Jaime can't help but be swayed by anything resembling a father figure, and John's overtures of trying to "toughen up" the boy are a transparent ruse to mold him into an accomplice and disciple.
As the main character, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), slowly accepts and eventually becomes complicit with serial killer of John Bunting's savagery, the camera departs from a documentary style of coverage and lingers more and more on Jamie. This means that by the time the film reaches it's climax the audience is placed in an awfully intimate and unsettling position with dismal hope for any release. However, the combination of Adam Arkapaw's voyeuristic cinematography, the decision to actually shoot in Snowtown and a cast of almost entirely non-professional actors, make Snowtown unique in its ability to convey such a convincing reality. The film generates most of its tension from the uneasiness from it's placement of viewpoint consideration - in terms of violence - of what to show and what to cut away from. The movie isn't structured like most true crime stories. The plot and characters are slightly muddled. Not everything is explained. It's not a procedural. The film is a chilling study of an evil, dominant personality and his victims. It works primarily through an astonishingly good performance by Daniel Henshall as Bunting. Compact, stout, muscular, he has beady eyes that twinkle as he plays the provider and protector.
Serial killers are often described as loners--hunting is sociable, pleasant, and friendly. He likes company. One wonders how the people in his life feel as they realize he has charmed his way into ruling their lives. "The Snowtown Murders" is distressing and almost disturbing--the most frightening film about a psychopath I've seen. There are very difficult scenes to sit through, and that's saying something. There is no way to understand John Bunting. He is quite simply evil.