Monday, 14 November 2011

Snowtown (2011)

Small-town horror story

Image: Revolver Entertainment

Real-life horror stories are always a tricky subject. Go too far in one direction and you can be accused of glossing over the unpleasant truth. Go too far in the other and you’re wallowing in a sordid past and exploiting real-life trauma. For his first feature, director Justin Kurzel tackles the story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer: John Bunting.

Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is the oldest of three brothers in a small town in Adelaide’s suburbs. When his mother Elizabeth’s boyfriend sexually abuses them, Elizabeth (Louise Harris) despairs of a world in which men like him can roam free. She’s quickly won over by charismatic, friendly John (Daniel Henshall), who has very strong opinions on what should happen to people who abuse children. But as John’s true nature becomes clear, is Jamie strong enough to think for himself?

Snowtown is a tough watch. Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant are set on immersing the audience in this small town and rarely has an area with so many wide open spaces felt so claustrophobic. They show just how easily the neighbourhood was won over by this monster with his cheery smile and friendly attitude. The scenes in which the locals sit around the table and discuss what they would do to sex offenders, egged on by John to do better than whoever spoke before them, are horrifyingly believable. The filmmakers have stressed their aim to show nature vs. nurture, and we’re shown just how open Jamie and his family are to John’s apparently kindly but strong influence on their lives. The film’s very much a portrait of a family gone wrong. It’s heavy on perverted domesticity, with the characters constantly cooking and eating. Jamie’s in need of guidance, and Elizabeth is in need of companionship. In his own psychotic way, John provides both. Unlike the thematically similar but very different Animal Kingdom, there’s no friendly detective to provide Jamie with any morality. There’s no police presence at all. There’s only John.

Then there’s the frank depictions of sexual abuse and violence. From the advance buzz surrounding it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Snowtown is a horror film, but for the most part the film stays admirably clear of gore and violence (apart from an early scene with some ominous animal butchery). For the bulk of the running time, we see the aftermath rather than the action and we hear the goodbye messages that John forces his victims to leave. However, this does not last, and squeamish viewers will find the last half hour very upsetting as Jamie uncovers the full extent of John’s crimes.

The casting of unknown actors is very successful. Pittaway’s completely convincing as a blank-faced, amiable teen and continues to impress as Jamie goes through the emotional wringer. Henshall is terrifyingly magnetic as John Bunting, never once going too far in either direction, while Harris is superb as Elizabeth, whose protectiveness can’t hold up against John’s insinuating combination of charm and force.

It’s hard to watch and it’s unpleasant throughout, but it’s a thoughtfully made and expertly handled study of innocence corrupted. There are a few moments of stylistic indulgence that slightly jar with the otherwise naturalistic tone, but otherwise there’s little to fault.

Verdict: Not for everyone, but this real-life story is handled with care and skill. The actors are superb and the atmosphere unrelenting.

4/5

JH 

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