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by Eric Kohn
February 29, 2012 10:48 AM
9 Comments
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Does "The Snowtown Murders" Get a Little Too Personal With Killer Rage?

"The Snowtown Murders."
The 1999 serial murders that took place in a sleepy town in Southern Australian don't just provide the inspiration for "The Snowtown Murders," Justin Kurzel's nightmarish directorial debut. The movie embodies the murdering process with undeniably frightening results that call the film's motives into question.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, "The Snowtown Murders" was merely called "Snowtown," placing emphasis on the locale rather than the grisly events that took place there. The new title is more accurate; it conveys that the film displays a devotion to those acts and virtually nothing else. The filmmaker convincingly portrays the evolution of killer instinct nearly to the point of fetishization.

There's skill behind Kurzel's execution -- of the story, that is. The main arc involves abused teen outcast Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), whose bleak home life with his two brothers and their dispassionate mother (Louise Harris) hits an all-time low when her boyfriend takes nude photos of the boys. At least, that appears to be the all-time low until a friend starts to sexually abuse Jamie as well.

Then comes a potential cure in the form of a new man his mother brings home, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). The confident, seemingly upright citizen holds neighborhood meetings in the family's kitchen to discuss plans for weeding out the local scum. But Bunting uses charm to mask his lunacy. Eventually, he brings Jamie into his real scheme, methodically killing off anyone he deems unworthy of their close-knit community. "The Snowtown Murders" then emphasizes Jamie's path to joining in the mayhem.

In that regard, it succeeds to a chilling degree. Kurzel's screenplay credibly portrays Jamie's transition from shy teen to murdering accomplice and finally killer himself with a disquieting sequence of ghastly moments. Initially a victim of circumstance, Jamie simply watches and weeps as John drags his victims to one bloody demise after another. His frightened innocence calls to mind a different Australian thriller of recent note, the first-rate crime drama "Animal Kingdom," where another confused young man watches and learns from the corruption surrounding him.

However, "Animal Kingdom" also managed to tap into the nuances of its crazier subjects so that it was possible to empathize with their mania. "The Snowtown Murders" never gets that far. It drops you inside the killers' den and then simply observes the debauchery, providing neither respite nor a coherent rationale for the perspective. While Pittaway's nuanced performance makes Jamie a deeply sympathetic would-be murderer, the screenplay allots less depth to his psychotic mentor. Bunting kills because he kills and that's all you need to know.  

That lack of details turn "The Snowntown Murders" into a half-formed depiction of killers that stumbles dangerously close to a paean. Certain unsettling images provides a stark reminder of the evil at work -- fingers painfully yanked out of their roots, a victim repeatedly choked to the brink of death -- but Kurzel mainly favors a morbid atmosphere over visceral discontent. The characters stare grimly at each other as the body count rises, and that persistent blankness makes it difficult to figure out what's going inside their heads. Instead, we simply watch and the movie challenges us not to get spooked.

The end credits speak directly to this agenda, revealing extensive details about the eventual capture and prosecution of the main assailants. Since none of this takes up actual screen time, Kurzel relegates it to a secondary position. Instead, "The Snowtown Murders" manages to become a compelling exercise that excels at making horrible acts look shockingly listless.

Criticwire grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? The film won a prize at Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival and played decently at various festivals, including Toronto and Fantastic Fest. It also won several Australian Academy Awards. However, the dark subject matter makes it a tough theatrical proposition, although it could generate decent VOD numbers from curious genre fans.

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9 Comments

  • LCS | March 9, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    This was a very hard movie to watch but these are the facts of the gruesome crimes that individuals are committing every day. I don't think murder should be sugarcoated and pretend that it is not what it is. Just look today at the Jody Arias murder. She butchered this poor naked man in the shower. Murder is gruesome and these people should pay with their lives and we as a society need to stop worrying about the rights of these monsters and execute them within 24 hours of their conviction and save taxpayers millions of dollars a year for babysitting.

  • RHG | March 2, 2013 11:45 PMReply

    I'll echo K. and Mark Schoeman below. In fact, Schoeman should have written the review. He was certainly able to recount the details more accurately, not to mention bringing a much sharper analytical light to bear. Lousy review, Kohn.

  • K | February 2, 2013 7:07 PMReply

    Jamie was sexually abused by his half brother, not a friend. I didn't like the movie at all but the fact that you got that huge detail wrong makes me wonder if you were even paying attention...

  • Mark Schoeman | August 31, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    I simply could not disagree more with this reviewer's take on the film.

    To say that it is a paean to murder is a shocking statement that speaks more to the reviewer than the director. The shear horror of this film is that it does not sanitize the violence as so many mainstream films are wont to do. We have become used to seeing even the most brutal violence be portrayed in a very stylized fashion on screen, cleansing it for popular consumption.

    This film clobbers you over the head with it. That in and of itself does make this a hard movie to watch. After the first half hour, you will spend the rest of the remaining hour and a half with a feeling of dread and nausea.

    But the notion put forth that we can gleam no insight from the minds of the murderers is a very shallow viewing of the film. John Bunting is a sociopath in the mold of Ted Bundy. Charming and charismatic, coupled with the initially admirable quality of being a man who backs up his tough words, while those around him are content simply to vent, Bunting is able to ingratiate himself with Jamie's family (on a side note, the sexual abuse was at the hands of his older half-brother, not a friend). Bunting brings order to the family's chaotic life, but even early on he reveals his extreme behavior. The key to Jamie's character is the order and confidence Bunting initially brings to his life and his willing to trade his soul for Bunting's love, affection, and protection.

    What follows is a slow grooming process. Bunting's initial murders were posited in the framework of the vigilante, targeting pedophiles and doing the job that the justice system refused. In short order we come to see that the pedophilia angle is really a cover to target homosexuals (on a side note: from what I read online, Bunting's chief accomplice in the film was gay himself, the former lover of one of their victims, something that would have been an interesting exploration itself). But when another victim is a drug addict and then a mentally disabled man, we see another shift, positioning Bunting not as a vigilante, are homophobe, but rather a psychopath who believes it is his right to decide who deserves life and who deserves death according to his code. Soon he will murder to cover his tracks and finally simply for personal enrichment.

    The most disturbing sequence is the murder of Jamie's older abusing brother. Without spoiling anything, I will only say it is informative to watch Bunting throughout the murder. The sheer joy he derives from watching his victim suffer, reveals a sadism that disabuses us of the notion that he harbored messianic tendencies previously seen as his motivation.

    I'm at a loss to understand what type of character exploration this reviewer was looking for. A man who grooms his teenage, quasi-stepson to join him in the identification, stalking, abduction, torture, murder, and robbery of a dozen victims is not a man whose mind can necessarily be understood or explained, which in and of itself is the revelation in the film.

    Much like Hitler, we come to see how a charismatic, intelligent, psychopath can move people to engage in inhuman brutality, while simultaneously believing they are somehow just.

    I would give this movie my highest recommendation with the caveat that it is on a level of Schindler's List with it's bleak landscape and horrors, however there is no Oscar Schindler in this movie, nobody is saved and no redemption rendered. It makes for hard and challenging viewing, but if your constitution can endure, it is well worth your time.

  • DannMann | November 24, 2012 3:36 PM

    In the ending credits it said that the mom (Elizabeth) was also found guilty of participating in one of the murders. Which one? I sure didn't see that. And why did they kill the kid that was associated with Elizabeth's 'ex'? That seemed really random to me.

  • Ambrose | November 20, 2012 11:05 PM

    Well said and I agree with your assessment in all respects.

  • Stella | November 15, 2012 6:53 PM

    Just my humble opinion, but I think YOU should have written this review!

  • John Wright | March 4, 2012 3:38 PMReply

    This film may be hard to watch, but well worth the effort. It was number two top grossing film in Australia in 2011 after red Dog. Snowtown is a true story set in South Australia.

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