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.