Snowtown, a film based on a series of murders committed near Adelaide, Australia between 1992 and 1999, is a gruelling take on its source material. First time feature director Justin Kurzel casts Daniel Henshall as John Bunting, the domineering serial killer at the centre of the true crimes. Initially Henshall portrays Bunting with a surprising charm and affection towards a family who fell victim to a local paedophile. He takes revenge of behalf of the family, before setting out on a crusade against any person he takes a disliking to. Ultimately Bunting becomes a junky to the violence he creates, enlisting those around him to carry out horrendous acts.
Kurzel’s approach is to maintain a gritty sense of realism, juxtaposed with a heavy dose of tension. He creates a number of particularly violent and disturbing scenes, with characters inflicting shocking acts on humans and animals. He combines these with frequent scenes of characters smoking cigarettes and eating. It creates a sense of squalor in which murder becomes as common place as lunch. Snowtown’s visual motifs bring to mind another recent Australian success, Animal Kingdom. Both films often portray important events in wide shots (sometimes opting for slow motion); this does not overemphasize the intensity of the action and creates a disturbing sense of detachment.
However, despite the comparison to Animal Kingdom being part of the praise for Snowtown, this is also where the film comes unstuck. Where Animal Kingdom had pace, punctuated by moments of extreme tension Snowtown feels somewhat incoherent and meandering. This problem partly stems from Kurzel’s tendency to create moments with a somewhat contrived sense of tension, relying too heavily on sound rather than action, as well as the film’s passive (though well acted) main character Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway).
With its brutal scenes and occasionally difficult pace Snowtown is challenging on several levels. Nevertheless it is well cast and impressively acted, showing moments of great directorial technique. All in all it is a flawed but worthwhile addition to contemporary Australian Cinema, which as a national cinema shows itself capable and willing of taking on tough subjects with creative ingenuity.