Australian director Justin Kurzel’s feature film debut, Snowtown, has been touted, quite rightly so, as ‘this year’s Animal Kingdom’, given its combination of a thrilling crime narrative with a dysfunctional family drama. The results, while not as explicitly intense as the aforementioned film, nevertheless create a discomfiting atmosphere of dread, all the more uncomfortable because it is closely based on real events; Australia’s infamous Snowtown murders of the 1990s.
Director Kurzel wastes almost no time at all making things uncomfortable for his audience; a brief glimpse at a seemingly normal family unit quickly gives way to the step-dad figure taking leud pictures of the children, the eldest of who, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), becomes the film’s focal character. It is this incident, along with a systematic pattern of abuse, both mental and physical, which causes us to wonder if it is the cause of Jamie’s complicity in the brutal murders of local residents by psychopathic serial killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall).
Bunting arrives early on in the film and establishes himself as the new family patriarch; a father figure to Jamie and his younger brothers. The tragic irony is that Jamie and his siblings don’t have much of a notion about revenge for what has been done to them; it just provides the tenuous catalyst needed for Bunting to appropriate his own, violent sense of judgement. Jamie, a boy with own set of troubles, becomes trapped in a mire of ambiguous morality; his mother is emotionally distant, while John is an intensive presence in his life and insistent to nurture him. Initially this begins with a prompt to vandalise the paedophile’s home, though this sets him on a slippery slope of complicity, introducing him to acts of violence which become progressively more savage as the film bounds along.
The difficult question the film asks, an answer to which becomes increasingly obvious by the film’s end, is whether Jamie would have been better off sticking with the sexually abusive father figure rather than John. It’s the sort of thought process that makes you want to take a shower just to wash off the dirtiness, for there’s a disturbing banality to Bunting’s evil deeds, such that Jamie is more susceptible to going along with them, his resistance being only passive, for he only once makes any effort to call the authorities. As things move along, it becomes clear that John’s motives are less out of vengeance and more to satisfy his own paranoid curiosity, reflected in the clinical coldness with which he resprays cars and changes license plates to cover his tracks.
The film’s actual murder scenes, meanwhile, are infrequent but extremely unsettling, particularly one in which a man receives a stifled strangulation, having already been half-beaten to death. The majority of the time, however, Kurzel employs prolonged takes and sharp cuts of deep meaning to infer the brutality that has taken place rather than bother showing a corpse; characters disappear off-screen without another mention, and while this might strike some viewers as too slight, it leaves an incredibly eerie feeling, and like Jamie, we aren’t quite sure what is going on.
One morsel of information fielded out in the final reel is a fiendish red herring in as much as it makes those of us unaware of the real life story doubt every preceding action. Though it turns out to be fruitless, it’s a clever – though possibly accidental, mind – way to keep the uninitiated viewer, who probably isn’t Australian, on their toes.
The tense climax is tough, though not in ways you might expect, and the question of how the story will resolve itself begins to transform from us anticipating the final murder in the sequence, to pondering a young man flirting with danger, and choosing either to resist or to give in to it. That is both the film’s argument and its uneasy end.
This grim Aussie thriller derives unnerving power from the unspoken truths during tense silences, ominously closing doors that seal fates, and the disturbing banality of evil.
Snowtown will be released on November 18th in the UK.