Sunday, 4 December 2011

Review: Snowtown

Based on the true story of John Bunting, Australia's most prolific serial killer, Justin Kurzel's Snowtown is a tense psychological horror film that at times verges on being unwatchable. The central perspective of the film belongs to teenage Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway); after he and his younger brothers are molested by a neighbour, their mother is befriended by local vigilante John. John succeeds in intimidating said neighbour into leaving town, using such subtle techniques as getting the boys to daub graffiti onto his windows with ice cream, and leaving the rotted, mutilated bodies of animals on his porch (where the Italians say it with a horse's head, the Australians say it with kangaroos).

John takes the submissive Jamie under his wing, slowly introducing him to a violent world of serial 'punishment' murder; on the hitlist at first are local perverts, gay men and drug addicts, but Bunting and his accomplices descend quickly into targeting the weak, and anyone who gets in their way. Known in Australia as the 'bodies in barrels' case, the Snowtown killings eventually totalled eleven; that may not sound like much when compared to the kill totals of some US serial killers (John Wayne Gacy had 33 confirmed murders, while Ted Bundy had 29, and they were both acting alone), but the Snowtown victims were subjected to hours of brutal torture, plus they were forced to record fake 'I'm leaving town, don't worry about me' messages to their families before finally being finished off.

Snowtown could so easily have been just another 'torture porn' horror flick, but writer/director Kurzel has made the story into a gritty, realistic, and excruciatingly harrowing piece of cinema which should by rights be remembered as one of the best films ever to come out of Australia. For too long Australia has been seen by the rest of the world as a technicolour paradise written and directed entirely by Baz Luhrmann; Snowtown quietly rips the glitzy, campy veneer to shreds, as if to say 'sorry folks, we're not all ballroom dancers, drag queens or wise-cracking farmhands with corks on our hats.'

Although Snowtown is very far from being torture porn, it is most certainly violent to an extreme degree. Most of the murders are offscreen because protagonist Jamie, through whom we witness the action, does not get directly involved with them for some time. However, when Jamie finally does start taking matters into his own hands, the film gets far more explicit; the murder of his older half brother Troy, for example, has been described in Sight and Sound by James Bell as being '...among the most distressing murder scenes ever filmed. It sears itself onto the memory.'

In the same article in the December 2011 issue of Sight and Sound, Kurzel expressed his own views on the murder scene, and screen violence in general: 'I've always admired visceral films, where you're not sitting back watching the violence with a compass...When I experience or see violence in the real world, there is no compass - it's incredibly disorienting and claustrophobic, and that's something I wanted that moment to be for Jamie and the audience. Too often I watch films where there's no value to the violence. You're not seeing the cause and effect of what's happening. The scene is interesting because it's both suggestive and explicit - which are both interesting ways to tackle violence. You're asking yourself, how long do I want to keep watching this?'

For some, the answer is not long at all; quite a few people walked hurriedly out of the screening I attended during this scene, and I have read internet accounts by people who found themselves unable to continue watching. The interesting thing about the 'walk-out factor' in Snowtown is that people weren't leaving because they found themselves disgusted by what they were seeing, but because they simply found it to be unwatchable. Unlike your average teen slasher movie, this film treats its violent scenes with respect and truth; the violence here isn't repulsive or uncalled for, it's raw and penetrating. The people that walk out of Snowtown are not the same people that walk out of Final Destination 5.

Snowtown is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment, and is currently on general release in the UK, although you might have to hunt around a bit to find a screening.

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