In an Adelaide working class suburbs of the 1990s, impressionable 16 year old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) forms a friendship with a new man in his mother's (Louise Harris) life, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). John is affable and always smiling, but Jamie fears there is something dangerous about this new father figure - a fear that is soon shown to be well founded.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Infamous for the body parts found in barrels, Snowtown in South Australia (150 kms north of Adelaide) has become something of a brand name for serial killers and their atrocities. The case made horrific headlines when it broke and the trial of the killers some time later was followed by two books about the terrible events and the people involved. The books were used as source material for this dramatisation, with an unknown cast delivering chilling performances.
This debut feature for Justin Kurzel is an attempt to explore, maybe even understand, the circumstances and the key characters - although there is no understanding John Bunting or any other serial killer. All we can do is observe and recoil - at least through this film.
The remains of eight victims were discovered in barrels of acid located in a rented former bank building, but there were 12 killed in all. Four people were convicted including ring leader Bunting.
Despite some genuine cinematic flashes, Kurzel and his team are unable to navigate the story with any clarity. We are left to our own devices to work out how Bunting suddenly appears in this lower working class family's life. We can't quite tell who is who, nor even who is being killed or why. Perhaps that's intentional - but it doesn't work as a cinematic story.
The best thing about the film is its portrait of the physical and emotional environment in which the story takes place: the chaos of the family's house, the disarray of its inhabitants, the relentless mood of defeated lives ...
Lucas Pittaway is outstanding as the weak and impressionable Jamie, the only one with anything resembling a conscience. He spends the film in a state of emotional tension and mental anguish. Daniel Henshall is effective as Bunting because he doesn't play a serial killer; he plays a man whose interior world is inscrutable and whose outer surface is affable. There is only one scene in which we see his avid fascination with the act of murder, although there are a couple of scenes that imply it, and an early indication of his callousness when he tries to launch Jamie's killer instinct.
Louise Harris is remarkable as Elizabeth, Jamie's mother, a distant character we never quite understand except for her inability to hold her sons together in any meaningful family unit. All the supports are great, too, and it helps the film's awful strangeness that the cast are unknowns.
There are a few gruesome scenes in the second half of the film, scenes which try to show the demented mindset of Bunting and his few close accomplices. They are necessary, of course, and they are edited with care to balance that necessity against the potential for sheer torture porn.
But there is no attempt to put the characters into any social context, nor do we know any of the backstory; this is a slice of their lives - lives which will never be the same again. Nor should they be.
Review by Louise Keller:
The claustrophobic mood with its sense of dread begins from the opening scenes of this gritty, graphic drama, and never lets up. Based on events leading up to what is known as South Australia's Snowtown murders (or the Bodies in Barrels murders) in the 90s, filmmaker Justin Kurzel's adroitly made film is filled with menace and instills a genuine sense of evil. The world portrayed is an ugly one, where violence, abuse, aggression and cold-blooded murder infiltrate from every corner and are part of everyday life. The soundscape is hugely effective too, as it uses pounding rhythms and jarring one-note sequences.
It could be argued that there is validity in telling this story by putting the context in which the horrific murders take place. Conversely it could be deemed tortuous to the families of the victims who surely, have endured too much already. I have a profound concern about the film, whose characters portray such abhorrence and callousness, that there is little to feel but revulsion. The scenes of graphic violence are nauseating and if the film's emotional journey relies on depicting Jamie Vlassakis' (Lucas Pittaway) weakness and inability to walk away from the sadistic, murderous intentions of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), it is not enough. There are also continuity issues, muddy dialogue and confusion about who is who in a muddle of characters. Missing dramatic elements additionally detract from the narrative.
Unquestionably, this is a tragic, horror of a story set in a rough neighbourhood of a small town in rural South Australia. Nothing much happens here. The normality of the sound of the icecream van comes as welcome relief to the broombroom of motorbikes, rape on the hallway floor, the dismembering of a kangaroo and round the table discussions about child molestation and the need for vigilante retaliation. The television is turned up loud to muffle the screams of someone being tortured in the bathtub. Will anyone miss him? The answer is invariably no. The confluence of all these issues paints life on a grim canvass.
Kurzel's ability to create this intense atmosphere is undeniable and as a filmmaker shows great promise. The performances too, are outstanding. Henshall is chilling as the heartless killer, whose cruelty is unnerving. (The scene involving a dog is not one that dog lovers will watch easily.) Pittaway makes an impression as the traumatised young Jamie, who gets sucked in by Bunting for the most part because his moral compass is simply not strong enough to walk away. I left the cinema feeling repulsed and downtrodden at the sombre world depicted, from which not even a little piece of blue sky can be seen.
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JUSTIN KURZEL INTERVIEW
CAST: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris, Frank Kwertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Richard Green, Aaron Viergever
PRODUCER: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw
DIRECTOR: Justin Kurzel
SCRIPT: Shaun Grant
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Adam Arkapaw
EDITOR: Veronika Jenet
MUSIC: Jed Kurzel
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Fiona Crombie
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 19, 2011