In May 1999, police discovered 8 bodies in barrels in the vault of a disused bank of South Australian town. Two more bodies were found buried in the yard of a house in Adelaide. Until recently, suppression orders prevented the public from knowing the details of the murders. Despite this lurid fact-tease, SNOWTOWN is less a tell-all and more a show-all, indeed even a show-as-much-as-sanity-can-bear. A cursory glance at press coverage of the murders tells you the filmmakers exercised considerable restraint in their recreation of events.
SNOWTOWN is the first full-length feature for director Justin Kurzel, and it’s a stomach-turning, dizzying, breathtaking debut. Kurzel, who comprises half of Australian blues-rock duo The Mess Hall, also composed the film’s score, an endless thrumming pulse driving and relentless as the narrative itself.
The weight of SNOWTOWN’s dive into the dark-matter of the human capacity for evil rests on the shoulders of Daniel Henshall, who brings ringleader John Bunting to life as a rosy-cheeked, smiling, sadistic menace. In the wake of neighborhood scandal, Bunting oils his way into the home of Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris), emotionally desiccated mother of four sons in a joyless, poverty-stricken suburb of Adelaide. Bunting exercises a hypnotic control in his assumed role of patriarch, enforcing household rules and stirring up the neighbors against threats both real and imaginary, creating an inner circle in which no one is safe as the whim of his insatiable need for violence shifts.
… neighbors gather in Harvey’s kitchen, communally meditating on what revenge they might enact on a suspected paedophile.
The title of SNOWTOWN hints at our inability to effectively analyze events portrayed in the film. Only one of the murders was committed in Snowtown itself; neither Bunting, nor his associates, nor any of the victims were from the town, yet the name is synonymous with the atrocities. The best response to a societal outcry of “But why?” is given in a scene where neighbors gather in Harvey’s kitchen, communally meditating on what revenge they might enact on a suspected paedophile. Some have relatively simple contributions, while others construct increasingly elaborate and terrible fantasies as Bunting sits at the center, egging them on.
Sixteen year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), Elizabeth’s second son and the youngest of Bunting’s crew, appears permanently subdued, fragile and dangerously pliable, the clay from which madmen make their golems. Vlassakis would later become the key witness in the case against Bunting and his other accomplices, and SNOWTOWN is Jamie’s story as much as Bunting’s, a sympathetic, horrific, all too clear lens through which to view the murders.
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