To all outsiders, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) appears to be a nice guy. An affable, easygoing character with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, John steps in to shore up a one-parent family that has recently been shattered by revelations of paedophilia. He encourages the boys abused by neighbour Jeffrey to write the word "FAG" on his windows and helps them splatter ground-up kangaroo remains over his porch, until this campaign of intimidation drives the man away. By this point, 16 year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and his younger brothers adore the new man in their mother's life, but John has not yet revealed the depths of cruelty and violence he is capable of.
Snowtown is the story of the most notorious serial killer in Australia's history. Between 1992 and 1999, Bunting was responsible for 11 murders, with the victims mostly being those on the margins of society. Justin Kurzel's film refuses to sensationalise the story, or even attempt to conform it to a familiar narrative, which makes Snowtown an extraordinarily tough film to watch; a detached, impressionistic portrait of horrific crimes that keeps the emphasis on absolute realism throughout. The film is shot in bleak hues by Adam Arkapaw (who also worked on Animal Kingdom, with which it shares some similarities), and the intense score provided by the director's brother Jed Kurzel plays a key role in the film's oppressive atmosphere. However, while you might suspect that Snowtown is a tough viewing experience because of the violence, that's not really the case. There's only one notable scene that shows a murder in all of its agonising, gory detail, and for the most part it's Kurzel's craft that gets to you, as well as his keen sense of what to show and what not to show.
What Snowtown does show so brilliantly is how a damaged, vulnerable young man like Jamie could easily fall under the spell of a man like John Bunting. He takes advantage of the destabilised Vlassakis family to give himself a platform in the town and then he manipulates the widespread hysteria over the paedophile menace to justify his own murderous desires, as he targets perceived gays and perverts who he feels won't be missed if they suddenly "disappear." He starts exerting his control over Jamie. We notice how he is always lurking in the background of shots in which Jamie is the focus, controlling the youngster's actions, and Henshall's stunning portrayal slips from avuncular chumminess into sadism and intimidation in the blink of an eye. Henshall is the only professional actor in Snowtown, the rest of the cast being drawn from the local area, but the naturalistic performances are convincing across the board.
But for all of its qualities, I'm having a very hard time recommending Snowtown. Ultimately, I left the screening wondering what I actually got from the film, beyond a general sense of emptiness and depression after witnessing such nihilistic cruelty. The final straw for many will be the already notorious "bathroom scene," which is crucial from a story point of view – cementing Jamie's complicity – but it's almost unwatchable as cinema. Snowtown is hugely admirable as filmmaking and I respect its completely uncompromising approach to telling this story, but the film seems inconclusive at its close, having failed to fashion a sense of purpose from these horrors. We despair at what we've witnessed and congratulate ourselves for having endured such a gruelling experience, but then we walk away from the picture knowing we never want to watch or think about it again.