Justin Kurzel’s début feature is a dramatization of Australia’s most notorious serial-murder crime spree. Needless to say, the film is a remarkably unpleasant viewing experience—although, like all good horror-thrillers, it prefers unremitting tension to direct on-screen violence. In 2003, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, John Bunting, was convicted of committing eleven murders in and around Adelaide between August of 1992 and May of 1999. The media dubbed the case “the bodies in the barrels” murders after the manner in which Bunting stored the corpses of his victims: eight dismembered bodies were found in six plastic barrels of acid in a disused bank vault in the semi-rural community of Snowtown, 145km north of Adelaide, on May 20, 1999. According to Wikipedia, “more than 250 suppression orders prevented publication of details of the case.” In early 2011, a judge lifted the remaining orders in response to a request by Kurzel and his producers. Kurzel’s film, named for that town, is a chilling portrait of a serial killer and the despicably violent gang for whom he became something of a cult leader.
Working principally with first-time actors, Kurzel chillingly frames the story not around Bunting but around Jamie Vlassakis, a seventeen year old teenager whom the ringleader took under his wing (as it were), leading him into his grotesque, psychopathic world of murder and torture. (The film was shot almost exactly in sequence, which would have helped the actors tremendously.) Thematically and in its austere near-Outback setting, Snowtown recalls two other great Australian scary movies: Wake in Fright and Journey Among Women. The film is exceptionally well-crafted. Its fluid camerawork, much of it handheld, and its starkly beautiful photography is a sight to behold. The careful use of a slow-motion in a couple of key scenes, combined with some superb steadicam indoor-outdoor transitions, adds to the sense of dread, already palpable from the first frames—a blank screen with a groaning, ceaseless heartbeat-like pounding underneath is all we see for the first thirty seconds or so.
In its juxtaposition of quotidian banality and brutal psychopathy, it echoes another recent Australian crime-thriller from last year, David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom—except that the ratio of blandness to terror is heightened in Kurzel’s film, especially in its unwatchably horrific central scene of sustained torture, which is where I locate the filmmaker’s biggest error of judgement. As Out of the Blue may have done for some of the inhabitants of Aramoana, Kurzel’s film might bring closure to a small community in South Australia, but it’s difficult to see exactly why this story needed to be told on film, and particularly with such a torture-porn-like centrepiece. Some of the murders, the director repeatedly notes in his informative but expectedly subdued audio commentary, took place over two or more days, with Bunting and his fellow sado-masochists drawing out their victims’ anguish to gut-wrenching levels. As such, the film periodically slows down to near-real-time; this technique is shocking and repulsive in equal measure. If you’ve already built up an almost unbearable sense of dread through no more than the combined, obvious skill of your cast and crew, why go all-out in the middle? The film’s centrepiece has something of a wholly gratuitous ‘violence for the sake of violence’ feel to it.
Snowtown is out now on Blu-ray through Madman.
Special features include an audio commentary by the director; his short films Blue Tongue, Pulse, and Bell; a selection of deleted scenes with optional commentary; some original casting-couch footage; a textual account, in intertitles, of the details of the murders and their aftermath, including details of the apprehension and subsequent sentencing of the accused; and the film’s teaser and theatrical trailers.
Technical review: Adam Arkapaw’s beautiful cinematography is some of the best of the year; its faithful rendering on this disc is a wonder to behold (if that’s not too perverse a sentiment given the subject matter). The disc’s sound mix is also of a very high quality.