Thanks to a morbid media fascination and the slasher genre, the serial killer has an air of mysticism that makes them more than mere mortals. Thankfully films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog and the new Australian psychological horror / drama Snowtown dismiss such myths. Snowtown is about Australia’s most notorious serial killer, John Bunting. In a small Adelaide suburb, the mother of three boys, Elizabeth, heads out for a date and has one of her neighbours babysit, only for the neighbour to sexually abuse her sons. Then, in the middle of the night, a mysterious stranger arrives to the roar of a motorbike which is used to terrorise the paedophile. This man is John Bunting, played with a terrifying honesty by Daniel Henshall.
An eternity away from genre stereotypes, John Bunting is introduced as a constantly smiling bearded man who cooks breakfast for the family he woke up so rudely during the night. Through his affable and jovial behaviour he slowly becomes a father figure for the young protagonist, Jamie, played by Lucas Pittaway. His cares about community and children, buying presents and taking them for birthday treats to the ice rink and abuses the neighbouring paedophile as a bonding exercise. It’s not until Jamie runs away to spend the night at John’s that Australia’s most notorious serial killer reveals his true nature.
Before that there is also a recurring scene that at first glance seems to be a character quirk, its only in light of following events that it is just another hidden depth to Bunting’s depravity. In these scenes his goads the locals into revealing the perverted depths that they would go to for revenge on these paedophiles in absence of the police. Such an absence makes the fact that this really happened, terrifying.
The real John enters the playing field when he notices that something has happened to Jamie and quizzes him on why he doesn’t stand up for himself. As this line of enquiry escalates, John asks Jamie whether he has shot a gun before. With gun thrust into his hand, Jamie nervously asks what he should shoot at. Scanning the room, John quickly says his dog. Assuming that John is joking he is met with an intensity that forces Jamie to shoot the poor animal.
The scene with the dog and the rape that informed that scene are just two scenes of many that are nigh on unwatchable, that isn’t intended as a slight against director Justin Kurzel. On the contrary, his début feature is incredibly accomplished. Instead this is in reference to the shooting style and content. Many references have been made to Snowtown about its brutality, usually when this comment is made it refers an overbearing grotesque violence. While Snowtown is violent, the brutality has more to do with what the camera shies away from.
It’s in these fleeting moments where we see Bunting’s modus Operandi. Just before a victim is killed, they are forced to detail a fabricated reason for their sudden disappearance. While not as violent as other films, the upsetting thing about these scenes is that aren’t over quickly. Being as prolonged as they are it becomes upsetting and as the camera observes Jamie as he watches someone being slowly killed. This is far more upsetting than the explicit detail of its blood thirsty brethren. Watching Jamie, a normal quiet teenager, shatter is heart-breaking, just by the camera observing his deterioration simply expresses the magnificence of the young actor’s performance. His role might not be as flashy as Daniel Henshall’s, but it’s just as accomplished and much more emotionally arresting.
The murder scenes echo the gritty and grimy reality of the serial killer, limbs aren’t severed and insides aren’t splayed. There is no romanticism in the depiction of this serial killer, he treats the dead with no respect and his reason for murder evolves and warps from those hated by the community to people who he doesn’t like. These inconsistencies are what make him such an unpredictable and terrifying force of nature.
Shot in a documentary style, there is a realism that evokes the feeling in the viewer of an illicit voyeurism that you constantly want to escape from. This is a great credit to director Justin Kurzel, that he made such an unsympathetic and brutal film which never breaks its oppressive atmosphere yet it is never anything less than enthralling. Observing this portrait of a serial killer and his corruption of a mind yet to be coloured is difficult to watch. Snowtown might be somewhere you never want to return to but should still be visited by those brave enough.