'Snowtown' (dir: Justin Kurzel, 2011) Cert: 18
Australia; home of 'Neighbours', kangaroos and apparently great crime films. After giving audiences the sensational 'Animal Kingdom' earlier this year (2010 elsewhere), it's seems our friends down-under fancy presenting viewers with another slice of underbelly existence with 'Snowtown' - a fly-on-the-wall biopic uncovering the stories behind the country's most prolific serial killer, John Bunting.
16 year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) is in search of a permanent father figure and a man to support his unwell and needy mother. This space is filled when John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) enters their lives. The two men share an instant connection but soon Jamie's world is consumed by fear, confusion and trauma as he realises the man he has come to depend on is in fact a ruthless and manipulative murderer.
'Snowtown' is certainly not for everyone; it dwells on decrepit and derelict life in the poor suburbs, it paints a bleak portrait with it's cloud-smothered grey skies and it feels immensely authentic in it's cinematic delivery. This is not a pretty film, nor an enjoyable one, but it is a great one. Début writer/director Kurzel forces a bitter taste into the gasping mouths of it's audiences and forces them to swill and spit it out; his approach to realism and filmic space makes the film feel all the more claustrophobic and indeed confrontational. For a newcomer to be this brash and brave is certainly something to celebrate as well as being a warning sign for future projects.
This is an extremely violent picture, but much like the cinema of Michael Haneke, it is violent in atmosphere and setting rather than mindless gore and splatter. During it's 119 minute running time, very little blood is spilt or seen, but this makes the grim and unsettled tone feel all the more menacing and demonic - as if what's going on behind closed doors is too graphic for viewers to endure so we simply wait outside tapping our feet and running fingers through our hair as the nightmare unfolds out of sight.
|Still from 'Snowtown' (dir: Justin Kurzel, 2011)|
There is one scene of uncompromising brutality however. A vicious beating and strangulation is screened in excruciating detail and seems to last for a lifetime. The act itself isn't the true horror, rather the humiliation and prolonged suffering of the victim. Tough-nut viewers who have sat through flicks such as Gaspar Noe's 'Irreversible' (2002) will not be too fazed but those unfamiliar in this territory may feel like gouging their poor eyes out to end this atrocious sequence.
The film's strengths however lie in it's unknown yet supremely talented cast. Pittaway, who was chosen after being spotted in a shopping mall gives a simply sublime performance as Jamie - the 'protagonist' to an extent who is subjected to this unwanted life yet is unable to escape it's bloody grasp. Considering this is his first time performing, the emotional weight and dramatic velocity upon him is undeniable, yet he seems so comfortable, as if he's been doing it for years. He is quite extraordinary and one is certain he will be reappearing very soon.
Henshall, also a newcomer, is mesmerising as John - audiences are supposed to hate him for being this foul and depraved monster, yet he is supremely charismatic and bubbly making him a hard shell to crack. His chubby, bearded exterior makes him seem lovable and caring which only forces a much harsher stab of realisation when he commits a crime. Henshall invites and embraces his audience, lulling them into a false sense of security before pounding and disfiguring them with his relentless terror and lack of moral stature.
One cannot say I'm desperate to see 'Snowtown' again any time soon and certainly a great dose of comedy television is needed after it's experienced but it is completely worthy of your time, strength and emotions. You'll feel bruised, battered and winded after viewing, but those aches and pains are the signs that you have just been part of a terrific slice of cinema.
The cinematic translation of "bringing a knife to a gun fight" - 'Snowtown' dominates, demands and dazzles.
By Chris Haydon