After yesterday’s light and fluffy high school basketball movie, the karma police decided that I needed a gut-punch. This one was pinned to my virtual suggestions board by Mr Unfocused Frames himself. If any of the rest of you fine people out there in internet land have anything you want me to watch, just let me know.
Strewth! I need a beer.
16-year-old Jamie lives with his mother and brothers in a suburb of Adelaide, in South Australia. After suffering sexual abuse at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, Jamie gets a hand from his mum’s new friend John to force the paedophile out of town. Gradually, John becomes more and more a part of the family, taking the role of the father figure that Jamie never had. John seems too good to be true, and he is. His last name is Bunting and he is Australia’s worst serial killer.
The true story of John Bunting and his gradual recruitment of Jamie Vlassakis as an accomplice in his killings is not a film that you watch. This is a film you endure, if you have the stomach for it. The word powerful doesn’t seem strong enough to describe this debut film from director Justin Kurzel. Other than the horrific rape of Jamie by his own half-brother Troy – shot from along the hallway in one single, unflinching take – and Troy’s ultimate comeuppance, there is very little violence shown, but what there is is truly shocking. The real terror in this film comes from two places: Daniel Henshall’s simultaneously charismatic and chilling portrayal of John, and the ceaselessly escalating tension and sense of impending doom created by Kurzel, his co-writer Shaun Grant and editor Veronika Jenet. As a real world horror film, this is unsurpassed. A Serbian Film was a much more visceral and punishing experience, to be sure, but it also had a drug-fuelled, hallucinogenic quality that added to its satirical excess to make something that could not exist in the real world. Snowtown on the other hand is made ultimately more punishing for being a true story, albeit somewhat dramatised.
The film is shot entirely from Jamie’s perspective and while Henshall has been the (deserved) focus of all the accolades, newcomer Lucas Pittaway is astounding as the youngster. His growing realisation of John’s true nature is shown with very little dialogue but is never less than totally believable. You can almost see every layer of Jamie’s armour peeling away as he is slowly and inexorably pulled in to the real world John inhabits as opposed to the one he presents to those around him.
This is a bit of a golden age for Australian crime drama, what with the recent Animal Kingdom and TV’s Underbelly (to name but two) and Snowtown stands above all else that I’ve seen as a truly exceptional piece of work. Highly recommended.