10, November 2011
Director: Juston Kurzel
Review by Bill Harrington
Snowtown arrives surrounded by quiet controversy. Rumours of walk-outs at screenings and at least one reviewer likening it to a snuff film may lead an audience to prepare for an exploitative piece. Such comment does the film a disservice. The film's notoriety seems unjustified considering its generally admirable lack of gratuitousness in relating its extremely grim source material.
Elizabeth (Louise Harris) struggles to raise three young boys amongst the bleak landscape of an Adelaide suburb. When she discovers her neighbour and lover has been sexually abusing her children, she falls under the influence of a collective that mete out summary justice to local paedophiles. At the head of this group is the charismatic John (Daniel Henshall) who quickly becomes the head of the household, a father figure to the youngest child and mentor to the eldest, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway). Jamie is a distant 16 year old, seemingly resigned to a life of abuse. Encouraged and influenced by John, Jamie begins to emerge from his shell but is then slowly subsumed by the brutal, murderous world his mentor inhabits.
For his first feature film, director Justin Kurzel dramatises the infamous Bodies in Barrels murders that horrified the Australian public in the late 1990s. Assembling his cast from mostly non-professional actors, Snowtown presents a community mired in squalor but wherein strong dependency on family and faith still exists. It is interesting to note how many scenes take place around the family dinner table. The importance of providing for the children is paramount (we witness just how much importance the patriarchal figures place on providing the best food they can for their charges, at odds with the ill-treatment they otherwise dish out). There are makeshift churches and full congregations. Yet these attempts at familial and spiritual fulfilment are resoundingly crushed by the environment, the poverty and the broken souls that infiltrate their homes and lives. As a mother, Elizabeth is at first fiercely protective of her boys. The endless attrition of squalor and abuse however eventually overwhelms her. She becomes a living victim of the murder gang.
The performance of Henshall dominates the film from the moment he arrives on-screen, a self-appointed moral arbiter with the face of a dark-eyed cherub. Compelling, charismatic and perpetually smiling, his manipulative ability to charm the vulnerable is very credibly performed. Henshall's ability to nonchalantly dismember several kangaroo corpses in a scene that will certainly turn some stomachs is also impressive.
John claims moral rectitude for his vocal condemnation (and private slaying) of the dregs of society: the child abusers, the drug addicts, but in the film's most disturbing scene his true, depraved fascination with witnessing and controlling the end of life is evident. It is a gruelling scene but I think its reputation for overt horror has been overstated. The eagerness with which the killers approach their task and their methodical prolonging of the victim's mental and physical suffering is what appals. A quick cut to the removal of a toenail, in contrast, is unconvincing and jarring.
Ultimately the film is concerned with the indoctrination of the pliant Jamie into John's hellish world, his resistance giving way gradually to complicity and acceptance. By the end the realisation that all empathy has been driven from this tragic child, and that his once blank stare now only conveys malice, is a harrowing one.
Visually the film has an appropriate washed-out look. The sun rarely penetrates the lives presented. Music is used sparsely to excellent effect, with flat tribal rhythms heightening a sense of dread at key moments. The script has a loose, improvised feel and strong, naturalistic performances belie the fact that it is mainly an amateur cast on-screen. Snowtown is an unflinching portrayal of graphic murder amid everyday banality, worthy of the critical praise it has received, not of the moral condemnation.