Justin Kurzel’s debut feature is about as downbeat as movies come. Try to imagine the nastier aspects of Wolf Creek viewed through the lens of Gummo and you’ll get a good idea of what kind of film Snowtown is.
I missed the feature on the big screen but was able to catch it now that it’s been released on Blu-ray and DVD, and my reaction is a multifaceted one. First off, the production values are immaculate. Despite being a grunge film, Snowtown is beautiful in its depiction of urban decay. The visual style is quite reminiscent of Animal Kingdom, and this comes as no surprise when you consider that cinematographer Adam Arkapaw worked on both films.
For those who don’t know, Snowtown concerns the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders that occurred in South Australia between 1992 and 1999. Whilst only one of the murders was actually committed in Snowtown, the town has unfortunately been linked to the crimes in the public’s mind simply because that’s where the bodies were discovered. We’re first introduced to Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) as his neighbour is sexually abusing him, and – incredibly – things go downhill for the boy after that. After his mother forms a friendship with John Bunting (David Henshall), the charismatic man takes Jamie under his wing. Somewhat of an unofficial community leader, he has some rather extreme notions about vigilante justice.
The performances are wonderful. Pittaway is impressive in a difficult role. Like Brent in The Loved Ones and Joshua in Animal Kingdom, he’s a depressed and sullen teenager who speaks only in monosyllables – hardly a characterisation to easily win over viewers – yet Pittaway is perhaps the most successful of the three. Jamie attempts to resist John’s influence just enough that I was still on his side. Of course, for a film like this to work, John’s portrayal had to make an impact, and Henshall succeeds on every level. In a performance that is echoed by Michael Parks in Red State, his evil is both insidious and compelling, and easily the best aspect of the film.
There is one big problem, however: it’s quite hard to follow what’s going on. The cinéma vérité style means that characters aren’t properly introduced and most of them die off-screen. That the film isn’t focussed on the grislier aspects of all of the crimes is fine, and I appreciate that the writers Kurzel and Shaun Grant didn’t want to weigh the film down with exposition, but it gets rather confusing. For instance, I didn’t realise that Jamie has both a stepbrother and a half brother – I thought they were one and the same. The film is peppered with answering machine messages that herald the death of certain persons, but on at least one occasion it’s for someone we’ve never even met. This confusion means that some of the film’s most significant scenes aren’t particularly effective.
At first I thought that this was my problem – I knew very little of Bunting. But in an interview included on the disc, Kurzel states that the general population’s knowledge of the case began and end with the aforementioned phrase ‘bodies in barrels’, and that he wanted to tell more of the story. If this is the case, then he failed, because it’s only those who have a detailed knowledge of the murders that will really keep up with the events depicted.
The Blu-ray has a huge collection of special features – from interviews to deleted scenes to a short film – though none outstay their welcome, which is a good thing these days when it’s reasonably accurate to assume that your average DVD collection features hundreds of films.
Snowtown shows the cast and crew at the top of the game, but is let down by incoherent plotting that focuses on tone in favour of narrative. Wonderfully shot, directed and acted, it is a memorable feature, but one may want to read through the Wikipedia article on the subject beforehand.
Snowtown is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Madman.Rating: