Thursday, 8 December 2011

Film #70 - Snowtown

I noted in my recent review of We Need to Talk about Kevin that it was a tough, tough movie. Snowtown makes it look like March of the Penguins. When a movie starts out with a single mother being told by the local transvestite that her new partner has been sexually abusing her three sons – and you realise in retrospect that that was a moment of relative levity – you know you’ve been watching something pretty harrowing.

Set in a working-class semi-rural Australian town, the film centres on the relationship between charismatic psychopath John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) and the boy for whom he becomes a father figure, James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway, uncannilly reminiscent of a young Heath Ledger). Both names are notorious in Australia, as ringleader and key participant respectively in the ‘bodies in barrels’ murders, a killing spree claiming twelve lives over seven years, real-life events which are portrayed unflinchingly in this film. So much for my scene-setting synopsis - frankly the events portrayed in this film are so traumatic that my brain has been hard at work repressing all memory of it.

Now as it happens I've recently read a book call Zero Degrees of Empathy (written by Borat's neurologist cousin, Simon Baron Cohen) which sets out a Kinsey-ish seven point scale of human empathy, with the zero-end of the scale representing an absence of empathy, sometimes manifesting postively as in severe Asperger's, but otherwise negatively as severe personality disorders including psychopathy. As a box-ticking pyschopath, Daniel Henshall has created one of the performances of the year, combining the volcanic unpredictability of Joe Pesci with an unsettling Malkovichian quality, plus a dash of This is England's Stephen Graham thrown in for good measure. Psychopaths are ten-a-penny in the movies, but few are played with quite the zero-empathy accuracy here; it's note-perfect - big, but credible.

However, if you're like me and tend toward the other end of the empathy spectrum you will find this a very hard film to watch. Apart from one or two very graphic scenes, the violence is unseen (though not unheard), but that doesn't matter - the tension is often unbearable and as Spielberg-of-old knew well, your mind is more than capable of filling in the gaps (it's worth pointing out that there are a couple of pretty heavy scenes involving animals too - fair warning). This is very much to the director's credit - in lesser hands we could have ended up with a Hostel-esque gorefest that would have been far less affecting, and would also have trivialized the crimes themselves.

Having praised Daniel Henshall, I should also say something about the rest of the (largely non-professional) cast, the majority of whom were recruited locally to the shoot. The film is packed with credible, bold performances. I’m a big fan of the use of non-professional actors – I strongly believe that, as with singing, acting is something that most people can do fairly well with a bit of practice; the mystique of the professionals puts them off – and here they are excellent, giving a kind of verite, genuine quality that professionals may not have been capable of.

However: there are a few negatives too. Firstly, the film’s relentless, soul-crushing bleakness punctuated with explosions of vile horror really makes it a tough watch, regardless of the quality of its execution. And secondly (maybe more crucially), I did lose the plot-threads on occasion, not helped by curious moments of directorial artifice, blurring the shot, obscuring the dialogue or indeed drowning it out with the soundtrack (which, while generally well-judged was occasionally obtrusive). Perhaps I just need things spelling out for me a bit more, or perhaps director Justin Kurzel is assuming that his audience are familiar with the crimes, so he is deliberately light on exposition (fair enough, I suppose, but I hadn't heard of these crimes before).

I can't finish the review without talking about Animal Kingdom. The two films have a great deal in common, beyond their criminal working-class Australian milieu. Both feature a listless teenage protagonist sheltering beneath the wing of a psychopath, and they share a dreary, mundane quality that sharpens the horror of the crimes commited in each (in that sense, I suppose Snowtown validates Animal Kingdom, which is more of a beginning-middle-end kind of film, only loosely based on real events). Being a narrative cinema kinda guy, I preferred Animal Kingdom - it's more of a movie, if you see what I mean, and as a simple-minded sort of fellow, I quite like having at least one key player in my films who is largely good, to provide that moral contrast. Whereas Animal Kingdom has Guy Pearce as a decent copper, Snowtown doesn't really have anyone who isn't sharply killed off. We end up, like the rest of the characters, struggling through in a world dominated by moral insanity.

Nonetheless, Snowtown is a debut of real boldness and quality, if emphatically not everyone's cup of tea. Watch Justin Kurzel's career closely.



  1. I made a point to watch this in the cinemas - my god, I really don't want to sit through it again. It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but once is enough. I can even remember the news reports on TV covering the trials :/

  2. Once is enough... you're not kidding. Unremittingly grim.

  3. Good review MS, I've been looking forward to this one. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. brilliant review. I don't know if I could make it through this one, but i'd like to try :\

  5. Believe me Rodders, if I can make it through it you can (it's not what you see, but what you don't!)

  6. Good review. I saw this at a Horror Film Festival in Dublin without knowing anything about it and I was blown away! So much so, I wanted to see it again immediately. I take your point about it being light on exposition, I had to read up a little on the details afterwards, but it's one of the best films I've seen this year (I also reviewed it).

  7. Cheers all above! Still haven't quite got over this one...

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