“Snowtown, the film, presents a sort of other worldliness. It’s a nightmare unfolding in daylight…”
running time: 120 min
writers: Shaun Grant, Justin Kurzel
select cast: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris.
Review (text version)
Someone asked me a while back to sum up this film five words or less.
My response – “Numbing to the senses” followed by a slow exhale.
The film has been praised, the film has been damned and really, anyone should make up their own mind… that I think is important.
We’re all grown ups, we have the right to think for ourselves… But I should warn in advance it is extremely violent, graphic, deeply disturbing and nightmares will most probably follow.
This is SNOWTOWN.
The film dramatises the “Snowtown Murders”, and the film was known by the title in some markets outside of Australia.
The events occurred over about seven years starting in 1992 and ultimately leading to the discovery of eight victims in plastic barrels, hidden in a disused bank building plus others buried in a suburban back yard on the outskirts of Adelaide.
For anyone who has not seen the film or is unaware of Jamie Vlassakis and his part in the real murders, I am giving away no specifics of events in the film – promise. If you haven’t seen the movie, come to it with a open mind and leave any expectations at the door.
The film is about how Jamie meets John Bunting, the ring leader of the murders, and how he is seduced into an inescapable vortex of compliant violence.
The director Justin Kurzel, in a move to make the film NOT a conventional drama, cast almost entirely non experienced actors.
Two roles played by Daniel Henshall as Bunting and Richard Green as the neighbourhood transvestite, yes, they had track records and legitimate acting credits, but just a quick search on IMDB for the rest of cast and what turns up is pretty much nothing.
People were recruited largely from residents of the area where the film is set and shot – Smithfiled Plains and Davoren Park – just a few miles from where the real events took place – casting scouts even hung out at a local shopping mall, approaching people who they felt “looked the part”.
As a result the film has a deep feeling of urban realism, as much for the faces as the places, especially in the minor roles, the village folk of the ensemble – you can see a deep level of their relationships and attitudes and interactions towards each other their physicality is completely different to the way actors might play at being these people – it’s in the way they walk, their presence in a room, their interactions with each other – it’s incredibly subtle, organic stuff but I believe it is there and it is captured by the camera.
SNOWTOWN is not a film of tidy dramatic packages – there are loose ends, there are questions left hanging, there are relationships between characters that are not fully explained, “Where does the young guy with the dark hair fit in?”, “So is she the wife of the other fella?”, and “Wouldn’t someone, anyone have objected to that given they all knew what was happening?”
We think these things because we, as an audience, are trained to expect, from a film drama, that issues will be dealt with in a “logical” way and we will come to understand each choice and action of a character… but life’s not like that… these people in this collection of events are not like that.
Their decisions – conscious and unconscious – are driven by their emotions. They are reacting out of fear, out of a need for acceptance, out of a dozen other reasons that are light years away from logic, but do, none the less, drive the decisions people make.
OK, enough of the psychology soap box.
When you are dealing with people who are socially marginalised, abused physically and emotionally as children, carrying a sense of abandonment and often low self worth into adulthood and with little vision for a life beyond welfare payments and two packs of cigarettes a day, what’s going to look attractive to them?
A sense of safety, a sense of someone who cares, a sense of acceptance.
It’s not hard to see why Jamie starts to align with John Bunting… but the extent to which it goes – Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage and what a frightening and very sad journey it is.
Director Justin Kurzel said of the film, “It was incredibly important that the type of violence in Snowtown comes out of a kind of banality and a domesticity and a kind of casualness which is what I think makes it so horrific, to the point that John Bunting is making it feel very ordinary as if it happens in an effortless way.”
Buntings’s reasons and choices seem initially to be altruistic with a firmly defined moral code of a “well meaning vigilante” but as justifications become lesser, and targets more numerous, the ideals vaporise – Bunting is undertaking thrill killings.
Some critics have been vey vocal about SNOWTOW.
As Morning TV movie critic Richard Wikins stated along with a “zero” star rating for the film, “This is as close to a snuff movie as I ever want to see”
Is his extreme reaction to the characters thrill kill actions?
Maybe it’s the the way the characters justify their actions as cleaning up societal scum that the legal system have leaned on too lightly?
Wikins went on to say,
“I don’t care if it’s rooted in truth or not, it’s appalling. I’ve seen it so you don’t have to.”
Now isn’t it great that in Australia, commercial TV personalities can appoint themselves as the watchdogs and protectors of the broader community’s moral and social well being… rather like Bunting and his accomplices in this movie come to think of it.
Like I said, we have the right to make the decision ourselves – we are grown ups.
I actually think SNOWTOWN a very worthy study as a piece of film making excellence. The choice not to sanitise anything – clearly showing the brutality in such detail is important in showing just how far Jamie is pushed beyond any reasonable boundary of recognise right and wrong by John Bunting’s distorted emotional control.
Praise must also go to an amazing lead cast – Louise Harris. Having never made a film before, her performance is all the more surprising and totally deserving of the AACTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role; Daniel Henshall capturing the duality of menace and charisma that’s so needed to seduce Jamie and others plus the vulnerability portrayed by Lucas Pittaway as Jamie – it’s a top job, so understated and so real.
Now, the bathroom scene (and those who have seen the film will know what I am referring to), just tell me that didn’t change the way you felt about the character of Jamie? How in a few gruesome minutes he makes a leap from what might still have been a “misunderstood teenager” to a point of absolutely no return.
Worth a look is the Blu Ray.
It reveals some interesting cut scenes from the movie.
Did Jamie have more of a way out than appears? Interesting to hear Kurzel’s comments on the commentary track as to why the scenes were dropped.
SNOWTOWN, presents a sort of other worldliness. It’s a nightmare unfolding in daylight, deepening scene by scene almost imperceptibly building; the occasional time lapse sequences in the lead up to some of the murders; the disembodied phone messages left by some of the victims; leaps and gaps in conventional narrative, suggest it’s all happening in a parallel dimension where space and time don’t quite operate in the same way as the rest of the world.
And it’s all the more disturbing when you consider that it really happened on a street,
in a town, just over there.
Reference Blu-ray copy of film used for this review:
Distributed by Madman Australia
© 2011 Warp Films, Screen Australia, Film Victoria, South Australian Film Corporation, Adelaide Film Festival, Omnilab Media.
Photo of Richard Wilkins
Photo by: Eva Rinaldi, Sydney Australia (Richard Wilkins Uploaded by russavia)
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One thought on “Snowtown”
Thanks for your excellent thoughts. I was too much of a wimp to see the film through to the end. The film is up there with Bjork’s ‘Dancer in the Dark which I wish I had never seen except that it made capital punishment more of a no for me than before.
Jeff in Melbourne where we open Moshinsky’s revived Don Carlos tomorrow night.
Sent from my iPhone