The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)

What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

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