Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway are both phenomenally assured in Justin Kurzel’s debut Snowtown (2011), an uncomfortably harrowing and gritty account of Australia’s most notorious serial killer (John Bunting) and the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ case which shocked the world. Sixteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) lives with his mother and two brothers in a dilapidated housing trust home in a deprived suburb of Adelaide. He’s been treated inappropriately by his mother’s boyfriend, sodomised by his older brother and longs to escape the violence and despair of this underprivileged community.
His saviour arrives in John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who soon becomes something of a father figure to Jamie. Unfortunately, the world John exposes Jamie too is awash with bigotry, social despondency and outrageously right-wing beliefs. Jamie soon becomes embroiled in John’s world of extremist vigilantism, causing a moral dilemma between his inherent need for a father figure and his reluctance to fully submerge himself into John’s immoral and gratuitously violent existence.
Comparisons with this year’s Animal Kingdom (2010) are sadly unavoidable, with both revelling in heightened domestic tension and exposing the criminal underworld of Australia. Both films also choose to tell their story through the eyes of young male protagonists. However, whilst David Michôd‘s assured feature length debut offers its troubled teenage lead J (James Frecheville) numerous escape routes, Snowtown’s Jamie is completely trapped within his torrid situation, ensnared by Bunting’s powerful paternal manipulation, with no plucky young police detective or knight in shining armour to save him. Indeed, the true horror is in just how easy it would be to fall under Bunting’s manipulative spell.
With the majority of the violence performed off screen, Snowtown relies heavily on the fear of what might happen, rather than depending on needlessly cringe inducing set pieces to unnerve the audience. That said, the film’s one scene of graphic violence is truly disturbing and literally stomach-churning; a feat accomplished by Kurzel’s tentative and restrained approach.
There are some elements which sadly prevent Snowtown from become a masterpiece. Despite never feeling like a debut feature, the film’s runtime does feel overly long. Thoroughly depressing and often disturbing, Snowtown is not one for the weak willed. However, if you can mentally prepare yourself for the harrowing tale at the heart of this emotionally devastatingly drama, you’ll discover a beautifully-filmed horror story, far more psychologically affecting that anything else you’ll see this year.