In the overall realm of indie drama, there's the gritty stuff and then there's Snowtown, an Australian feature that makes darkly-themed masterpieces like Michael Cuesta's L.I.E. and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank seem almost lighthearted in comparison. First time director Justin Kurzel shows an unflinching resolve to tell his story without compromises; a choice that means that many people will not make it all the way to the end of his debut film. For what it's worth, it's an incredibly well-crafted but, ultimately, bleak and disturbing picture.
Let's quickly go over the details: Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) lives with his mother, Elizabeth (Louise Harris), and his brothers in a run down hovel. Not long after Elizabeth unwisely leaves her boys in the care of a neighborhood pedophile, she begins a relationship with John (Daniel Henshall), whose unhealthy obsession with retribution against sex offenders is an early indicator of his own violent dysfunction. John and Jamie rapidly hit a dynamic that mimics a father-son relationship, promising Jamie a respite from his otherwise bleak existence, that is, until John places a gun in his hand, demanding that he become an accomplice in the first of many unthinkable tasks.
Snowtown is based on the true story of John Bunting, a notorious Australian serial killer, whose extreme hatred for homosexuals and pedophiles led him to perpetrate a series of crimes known as the Snowtown murders. Although it's focused on Bunting's crimes, the story is relayed almost entirely from Jamie's perspective, which means the viewer is given just the contours of Bunting's malevolence at first, providing a Hitchcockian tension to the film that, once the threat has been fully substantiated, fills the audience with fearful apprehension about what lies ahead.
It's also worth noting the overall aesthetic at play here. I mentioned Fish Tank at the beginning of the review. Like that film, Snowtown draws heavily from Ken Loach's strategies for social realist storytelling, handheld camerawork mingles with an undressed sense of poverty-stricken places and the disenfranchised people who occupy them.
Because Kurzel's film is about a serial killer, the overall result of the realist approach couldn't be farther from other movies dealing with the same phenomenon; unlike Hollywood blockbusters about serial killers, this film doesn't romanticize or glorify its monster. Contrasted with examples of the genre like American Psycho or Natural Born Killers, Snowtown is truly capable of inspiring a horrified recoil in the viewer, especially in those willing to stick with it and ponder the unmitigated evil being depicted here.
It's an incredibly potent and self-assured debut film, exceptionally nihilistic in its worldview and containing hypnotic, career-making performances from both Pittaway and Henshall. It's also one of the darkest films I've ever seen at a festival, presenting sequences involving incest, pedophilia, torture, murder, animal abuse, etc. Consider yourself warned.
Snowtown will screen for the public at the Lloyd Mall 6 on Feb. 24th at 6:30pm and at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 25th at 8:30pm.
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