One has to go back a long way, to Rowan Woods’s ‘The Boys’ (1998) or John McNaughton’s ‘Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer’ (1986), to find a crime drama as intense, disturbing and unresolved as Australian director Justin Kurzel’s film about the infamous ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ murders near Adelaide in the 1990s.
The remorseless pacing of Shaun Grant’s spare script and the pulsing drive of Jed Kurzel’s electronic score draw us reluctantly but inexorably into the familial and group dynamics which acted as the catalyst for a string of killings. Yet for all its unflinching bleakness, this is a sympathetic attempt to understand how vulnerable 16-year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) – from whose naive point of view the appalling events are observed – came under the malign influence of charismatic psychopath John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Equally impressive is the film’s intimate portrayal of Jamie’s marginalised community and dysfunctional family, both of which have been blighted and fractured by endemic poverty, drugs and sexual abuse.
When John moves in with Jamie’s separated mother, Liz (Louise Harris), his surrogate father figure brings stability to her three sons’ lives – providing money, cooking proper meals and buying them presents. But he also becomes the self-appointed spokesman for the disenfranchised locals, a deprived underclass seething with anti-gay prejudice and a blind hatred of paedophiles. However, since everything is seen from gullible Jamie’s vantage point, a question mark remains: is John really capable of the violent, homophobic vigilantism he openly brags about, or is this just macho bravado? A hint of how things might escalate comes when John and Jamie graduate from throwing ice-cream cones at their paedophile neighbour’s windows to sloshing the dismembered head, tail, paws, ears and bloody entrails of a slaughtered kangaroo on to the sexual offender’s porch.
‘Snowtown’ is an uncomfortable film to watch, but its sickening suburban horror is made bearable by Kurzel’s rigorous restraint, mostly oblique presentation of the killings and fierce determination to delve beneath the grisly details. Non-professional actor Pittaway brings a slab-faced sensitivity to his portrayal of suggestible Jamie, while other locals play characters much like themselves, which adds texture and unexpected humour to Kurzel’s portrayal of a damaged community in thrall to an insidious, beady-eyed psychopath – played with sly ferocity by sole professional actor Henshall.
Stripping away the generic trappings and flashy visuals that marred another recent Australian suburban crime drama, ‘Animal Kingdom’, Kurzel and that film’s brilliant cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, make judicious and effective use of slow motion and speeded-up images, adding another level of nerve-shredding psychological tension.