This stunning – and I mean stunning – new Australian film presented me with quite a dilemma. It’s brilliant, lapping at the high water mark of the superb Animal Kingdom. The crafting, the writing, the performances, the score (the score!), the cinematography – all truly terrif. My dilemma? I felt accosted, traumatised, terrorised even, by the extreme violence and scenes of torture it depicts with gruesome realism. So, great as Snowtown is, I can’t recommend it to anyone seeking an enjoyable night out at the movies.
Readers of this blog will know that I am not PC. Nor am I a shrinking violet. While I abhor violence in life, I enjoy it in art – particularly in movies – in some contexts. For example: where it is cathartic (we all love to see the bad guy cop it), funny-yuk and over-the-top as in schlock-horror, intrinsic to realism as in war and gangster movies, or otherwise serving some valid dramatic function.
Occasionally, though, a movie comes along with scenes of extreme violence or gore that seem to have no purpose other than to rub the viewer’s nose in the shit of humanity (eg: the masterfully executed but tyrannically and gratuitously confronting Funny Games, and more recently the appallingly misogynistic muck, The Killer Inside Me). I resent having my nose ground thus, because terrorising an audience with gratuitous scenes of horror is a violation of a sort, a betrayal of trust and abuse of power on the part of the director, whose assumed contract is to entertain, to enlighten, to in some way reward the viewers for investing time and money in attending the film.
Presumably, the great majority of viewers do not attend cinema theatres to be revolted for revulsion’s sake. Therefore, gratuitous extreme violence or horror amounts to a directorial wank, since the only gratification is the director’s, deriving from their power to shock/sicken the audience, or to gain some notoriety in the hope of furthering their career – at the audience’s expense.
While Snowtown is every bit as confronting in terms of its violence as Funny Games or The Killer Inside Me, one of its major points of difference is that its serial killer characters and their horrendous crimes are based on real occurrences – South Australia’s infamous ‘body in a barrel’ murders of the 90s. If, as is my contention, the show-it-all torture and killing scenes are so mercilessly realistic and horrific as to risk alienating the audience, it is nonetheless unfair to label this exploitation cinema, or to charge the filmmakers with cynically setting out to create controversy for self-promotional purposes.
Rather, this is a case of a first-time director over-prioritising gruesome realism in an effort to stay uncompromisingly true to the facts. The thesis of the filmmakers is that however uncomfortable we may be witnessing accurate simulations of unthinkably dreadful acts, they happened in our society, and thus we have to accept some responsibility for the conditions that combined to produce the monstrous perpetrators.
Even if I was to accept this thesis, which I’m not sure I do, I still question whether we as a movie audience need to suffer through the graphic detail of horrendous crimes in order to comprehend their awfulness and thereby fully acknowledge an aspect of our society that we would rather not contemplate. While these darker regions are, of course, legitimate areas for artistic exploration, I would argue that the business of art is not merely to reflect facets of ‘reality’ back at us, but to interpret that reality – to say something meaningful about it. For instance, what is the psychology behind ‘pleasure killings’? Serial killers? And most horrifically fascinating of all, serial killer packs, as in the case of the Snowtown murders?
These sorts of questions are far more interesting to me than intimate knowledge of the crimes themselves. Great as it is, this film would have been better served focusing less on graphic depictions of the crimes, and more on the psychology of the perpetrators.
That said, much of the movie does centre on the transformation of 16-year-old Jamie (played by Snowtown local Lucas Pittaway) from sexual abuse and incest victim to serial killer accessory and ultimately active participant. John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) is the agent of Jamie’s transformation. A charismatic psycho who infiltrates Jamie’s family via a relationship with his mother (Louise Harris) and quickly assumes a paternal role, Bunting expertly uses his manipulative power to subjugate the family and others to his will.
He is obsessed with paedophiles and gradually recruits a crew of disciples to assist him as self-styled vigilante skimming society of its scum. His modus operandi in gradually setting up a group to assist in pursuing his murderous agenda is convincingly handled, but we are never given the slightest glimpse into his background. We see how he turns others into sadistic killers, but there is no hint at what might have spawned such depravity in him.
As the body count mounts, Bunting drops any pretence of vigilantism. Paedophilia is no longer a prerequisite for his prospective victims. Loners not likely to be missed become his prey, and as he and his cult of killers grow in confidence, the thrill of the hunt and terrible sadistic pleasure of the slow kill become all-consuming.
Dark territory, which many will not want to venture into. It has to be said, though, that Snowtown is one hell of an auspicious directorial debut from Justin Kurzel.
Drawing on a tremendous screenplay by Shaun Grant, Kurzel has extracted outstanding performances from the actors, most of whom are locals plucked from the Snowtown area or thereabouts. First-time actor Lucas Pittaway is heart-breaking as a demeaned young man surrendering his will and ultimately his humanity to a despotic evil monster. Daniel Henshall, the only pro actor in the cast, is chilling and all-too-believable as John Bunting. As monstrous and evil as his character is, Henshall avoids the pitfall of straying into unwitting caricature as is common in these sorts of roles (think Wolf Creek). It will take a formidable acting feat to deny him Best Actor in the AFI Awards for 2011. And depending on the reception of Snowtown at the 2011 Cannes Critics’ Week, he may just be on track for something bigger.
If only the focus of the movie had been more on the ‘why’ and less on the ‘what’ and ‘how’, what a work it could have been. It’s the best Aussie film I’ve seen since Animal Kingdom, even so. Just don’t go expecting to enjoy it.
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