Broadly speaking, the subject of serial killers in film can be approached in two ways. You can either create an anti-hero, a type of murderer who revels in his deeds and proactively toys with his victims, much like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991). In complete contrast (we now tend to see this more frequently) there’s the intense, scary perpetrator who seems to be normal on the outside but actually harbours a horrifying way of life and could quite easily be living down your street. This latter tack is followed by Snowtown, which is similar in tone to the Australian gangster film Animal Kingdom (2010), but is moodier, creating an atmosphere far removed from our sunny perception of Neighbours and Home & Away.
Snowtown beings with James (Jamie) Vlassakis (Pittaway), recounting a strange dream in a very melancholic manner. He then awakes in his bedroom – he lives with his dysfunctional family in the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury North. Jamie’s mother Elizabeth (Harris) looks after her sons on her own, despite their struggles and the obvious lack of a father figure. When she discovers that her boyfriend, who lives across the road, is a paedophile who has been taking indecent pictures of her boys, she flies into a rage and lashes out at him. After the police release him without charge, Elizabeth is contacted by one of her friends, Barry (Richard Green) who introduces her to John (Henshall), who despises homosexuals and paedophiles. He harasses Elizabeth’s ex with the help of Jamie and they manage to eventually drive him out-of-town.
John takes Jamie under his wing, providing the male role model he was looking for. At the same time he becomes increasingly homophobic, in line with John’s extreme views and begins to take on more violent tendencies – Jamie is unable to escape John’s control and becomes his reluctant passenger. John starts to influence the neighbourhood with his views, separating Barry from his boyfriend Robert (Aaron Viergever), who violently retaliates against Barry. As a consequence, Barry isn’t seen again, leaving behind a message for his brother that he has gone to Queensland. Jamie visits his drug-addict friend Gavin (Bob Adriaens), to whom John takes an instant dislike – a few nights later John and Robert take Jamie to the garden shed and show him something incredibly disturbing. From this point on, Jamie finds himself inextricably linked to the murders of John Bunting – Australia’s most notorious serial killer.
Snowtown charts the early part of a killing spree that may not be familiar to many people outside Australia. While the name of John Bunting may ring a faint bell, you will more likely find this more involved without knowing too much about the real-life story beforehand. There’s a particular bleakness throughout – the use of dark camera filters gives us the impression that a malevolence is breeding away in the background and will soon rear its ugly head. Director Justin Kurzel effectively drains the life out of the screen, which is certainly appropriate given the plot. By doing this though, Kurzel also reduces our chance to be gripped by the characters, who are pretty dour except for Daniel Henshall, who plays Bunting with the arrogant intensity you would expect.
The only criticism you could level at Henshall would be the muffled delivery of his lines, especially at the dinner table, where most of the chatty scenes take place. Such an important character needs to be heard and this is of little use to us, if he spends most of the time with his mouth full. Lucas Pittaway’s Jamie is a compelling watch but if you look at the film in hindsight, there are only one or two scenes in which he is called upon to stretch himself. The cast share screen time pretty equally – no-one really stands out except Henshall and Pittaway, who have a convincing relationship as they carry the storyline. There will be the inevitable comparisons drawn with Animal Kingdom, but while David Michôd’s film also had a young, impressionable teenager getting swept away in the violence surrounding him, Kurzel hasn’t managed to coax the same accessibility to his talking props in quite the same way.
Snowtown employs a cast of virtual unknowns and as a result, lacks a quality star to really shake things up. It’s a valiant effort to shed a different light on an infamous event, but by the final reel there’s more a feeling of being dazed and confused rather than a sense of shock and disbelief at Bunting and his accomplices’ crimes.