Both naturally thrilling and grotesquely over-the-top, the feature length debut by Justin Kurzel is certainly unforgettable and at times unnervingly mesmerizing. Based on the true story of Australia's "Body In Barrels" murders, "Snowtown" is structured much like "Animal Kingdom," using an adolescent teenager as a gateway into a world and family (of sorts) that is profoundly disturbing.
When we first meet Jamie Vlassakis (newcomer Lucas Pittaway who looks a lot like James Franco) he and his two brothers have already been through one trauma, surviving (with a strange emotionless stoicism) the sexual abuse by their neighbor. Their mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) turns to her boyfriend John (a terrifying Daniel Henshall) to do something about it but little does she know what lurks between his warm smile and easy (and sometimes unnerving) demeanor. Sensing a vulnerable boy who can easily be moulded, John takes Jamie under his wing and slowly draws the teen into his dark and secret world.
Through humiliation and intimidation, John reveals himself for who he truly is to Jamie: a psychopath of the highest order, and a raging homophobe. John slowly and gradually pushes the sensitive Jamie's tolerance for violence and torture through a variety of increasingly hard to watch scenes. Once he has cowed and desensitized Jamie enough, he brings him into his grander schemes which include meticulously murdering sexual predators, junkies and anyone else John deems unworthy. With a "CSI" worthy level of research, John tracks his potential victims on a massive chart and though coldly stating that "No on cares" about these people, disposing of the bodies in barrels of acid which are hidden in an abandoned bank vault.
Terrified for his own safety as well as that of his mother and brothers, Jamie continues to obey John against his better judgment. During the first "kill" that he's brought along for, Jamie steps outside as the toenails of the victim start being removed with pliers. A furious John calls him back in to witness the rest of the killing and Jamie, eventually overcome by lengthy torture, strangles the person himself in order to spare him anymore pain. But that struggle between brutal violence and a deeper psychological breakdown of both John and Jamie is reflected in Kurzel's approach to the film itself.
"Snowtown" could certainly be described as brave, but it's also wildly uneven. The first half of the film, in which Jamie is slowly groomed and introduced into John's world is easily the best part of the film. Shot in hand-held style in the ugly, earthy browns of an Australian lower class neighborhood, watching John setting the bait and Jamie taking it is intensely compelling and unsettling all at the same time. So when the film shifts into the graphic depictions of the killings — the first of which, partially described above, caused a massive wave of walkouts — feel superfluous, indulgent and unnecessary. As a character, John is already frightening, more so because the depths of his depravity are left largely to our imagination. However, when we see John in the act, the mystery of how far his moral code has fallen is disappointingly answered. Once the routines and limits of John's demeanor are established, it limits our thoughts in considering just how extreme his capacity for depravity is. Moreover, the depictions of violence of the film feel exploitative and they aren't quite earned. While Kurzel was likely looking to show how vicious and brutal John Bunting was, recreating the murders seems gratuitous, unearned and we're not convinced it particularly honors the real life victims of these crimes.
For this first effort, Kurzel shows tremendous skill even if "Snowtown" never quite fully succeeds. The psychological portrait he paints with Jamie and overall tension built throughout the film is top rate, while the excursions into violence are jarring diversions from the carefully crafted characters Kurzel has brought forth. Regardless, Pittaway and Henshall each turn in powerhouse performances and though it doesn't always work and loses it's footing as it winds to the end, Kurzel's "Snowtown" is still worth the visit. [C+]