Snowtown DVD Review
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Written by Shaun Grant
2011, Region 2 (PAL), 119 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
DVD released on 19th March 2012
Daniel Henshall as John Bunting
Lucas Pittaway as Jamie Vlassakis
Bob Adriaens as Gavin
Louise Harris as Elizabeth Harvey
Frank Cwiertniak as Jeffrey
Matthew Howard as Nicholas
Marcus Howard as Alex
Anthony Groves as Troy
An intensely unpleasant but deeply fascinating biopic of Australia's most notorious serial killer, Snowtown is not for the faint of heart. I popped it into the DVD player blind, knowing nothing of the film nor the true story behind it. What followed was one of the most troubling movies I have seen in my life.
When 16-year-old Jamie suffers abuse at the hands of a local paedophile, he and his mother are drawn to the charms of self-appointed neighbourhood watchman John Bunting. Bunting appears to be kind, charismatic and community-spirited. To Jamie, he becomes a father figure. But behind the jovial smiles and friendly community guardian front, something sinister lies. At neighbourhood social gatherings, he rants of the danger from paedophiles and homosexuals — his hatred of both palpable. The mob mentality in these scenes is terrifying and plausible at the same time. There's a sense that Bunting uses the parents' fear for their children's safety as cover for the thing he really hates: homosexuality. He deliberately confuses and blurs the two for his own ends. But even then, is Bunting's homophobia his real driving force, or just an excuse for rampant murder and gruesome torture?
There's a grotty, bleak world painted by Snowtown. Its working-class Brisbane resembles the Britain of Shane Meadows' This Is England, with racial tension replaced by vicious homophobia, and one loquacious lunatic (that'll be Stephen Graham's Combo) standing in for another. With his beard stolen from Paddy Considine in Dead Man's Shoes, Daniel Henshall brings the killer to life in a strikingly animated fashion. His performance is reminiscent of Eric Bana's in Chopper — and I'm not just saying that because they're both Australian. One of Bunting's defining features was how he had families and neighbourhoods in love with him — Henshall really sells it. As the serial killer's apprentice, Lucas Pittaway is understated and sympathetic. He's the film's anchor and it's through his eyes we get to know Bunting and his world. One suspects that a version of Snowtown with John Bunting as the main character would have been unwatchable. As it is, relatively few of the murders are shown, and it still remains mightily disturbing.
The fine performances only make the characters' acts seem more horrifying. There are several scenes which defy watchability. A casually depicted rape sets the stage for what is to come. There's a horrifying torture sequence (I actually looked away from the screen — something I very rarely do) and even a little animal cruelty, in case you weren't offended enough already. Shocking as the violence is, it's actually the acts which go unseen that are more unsettling. In the preamble to one of the murders, the tension rises to almost unbearable levels. There will be some audience members unable to see the film through to its denouement. And unless they like being miserable, they're probably not missing out.
It's too serious and relentlessly depressing to ever enjoy, though it remains morbidly interesting throughout. Some will hate the grim realism and nihilistic lack of hope or sympathy offered by the film. It makes for challenging viewing without much of a payoff, but for crime history buffs and as an extremist character study, it's compelling. It's a nastier, dirtier American History X, with none of that film's sense of redemption or hope.
Just keep telling yourself “it's only a movie, it's only a movie.” Except it's not. The reality behind Snowtown is even more grisly and gruesome than the film itself actually shows. Snowtown is a depressing one, and will stay under your skin for some time afterwards.
Video and Audio:
It looks cheap and shabby, lending authenticity to the grubby estate and its penniless inhabitants. It feels real, and as a result, its characters' actions do too. The soundtrack is understated; the use of a television sports' commentary in the background of certain scenes work further to drive home the unpleasant sense of realism.
There are several deleted scenes accompanied by a directors' commentary outlining the reasons for the cuts. Fans of Henshall are in for a treat, with casting footage offering more of his slimy brand of magnetism. If you want to know more about the real Bunting and his crimes, 'The Snowtown Crimes' gives the full grisly story. There's also a short and insightful Q&A hosted by Kim Newman, in which director Justin Kurzel talks more about the thought processes behind the film.