The Snowtown Murders (2011)
Very quietly, Australia is putting out some of the most troublingly honest films on earth, The Snowtown Murders among them.
First time filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s movie bears more than a passing resemblance to 2010 Aussie import Animal Kingdom. Both boast unreasonably realistic performances focused on Australia’s seedier side; both examine one family’s functional disregard for the law; both hinge on the relationship between a charismatic psychopath and a quiet, wayward teen.
But Kurzel’s film, unfortunately, mines a true story.
John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties. We only watch it happen once on film, but that’s more than enough.
The director seems less interested in the lurid details of Bunting’s brutal violence than he is in the complicated and alarming nature of complicity. Ironically, this less-is-more approach may be why the movie leaves you so shaken.
An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.
Daniel Henshall cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round-faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.
There’s not a false note in his chilling turn, nor in the atmosphere Kurzel creates of a population aching for a man – any adult male to care for them, protect them and tell them what to do.
Once he has the trust of his neighbors in this low-income suburb, Bunting picks and chooses: who dies, who helps, who lives another day. What begins as exceedingly brutal neighborhood vigilantism turns quickly to a sort of thinning of the herd, and eventually to simple, unfathomably horrific entertainment.
The Snowtown Murders is a slow boil, and painfully tense. It’s hard to watch and harder to believe, but as a film, it offers a powerful image of everyday evil that will be hard to shake.