Snowtown: Cannes Review

Snowtown Press Still 2011
A well-made but hard-to-watch portrait of Australia’s worst serial killer.

Justin Kurzel directs a well-crafted but hard-to-watch film about Australian serial killer John Bunting.

SYDNEY — Only the truly ghoulish will find any pleasure in Snowtown, Justin Kurzel’s well-crafted but hard-to-watch true-crime debut. Unrelentingly grim, this psychological horror story supplies fodder for nightmares in its portrayal of John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, whose modus operandi led to his 1990s killing spree being dubbed “the bodies in the barrels” case.  

The Adelaide-set film won the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival earlier this year, and it represents a notable festival calling card for first-timer Kurzel.  

But box office prospects look bleaker than the unkempt suburban setting, with audience-repelling features including, but not limited to, male rape, kangaroo dismemberment and one ugly murder so prolonged that it borders on torture porn. There will be those who wish they could “unsee” it.

Shaun Grant’s screenplay, inspired by the books Killing for Pleasure by Debi Marshall and The Snowtown Murders by Andrew McGarry, sidles up to the killer via one of his three accomplices, 16-year-old James Vlassakis.

The dead-eyed teen, played with sullen effectiveness by newcomer Lucas Pittaway, lives with his single mom, Elizabeth (Louise Harris, another in a cast comprised largely of first-time actors), and two young brothers in a desperately poor fringe suburb awash with sexual predators and violent criminals. It’s the kind of place where kids play demolition derby with abandoned shopping trolleys for fun.

Early scenes simmer with a sense of foreboding as the charismatic and manipulative Bunting (a disturbingly excellent Daniel Henshall) inserts himself into their lives, wooing the wretched Elizabeth and becoming a warped role model for lost-boy James. The ragingly homophobic Bunting also convenes vigilante round-tables, in which neighbors gather over beers to vent about area paedophiles.  

With no complicated motive to explore - Bunting merely enjoyed killing for killing’s sake - the filmmakers focus on the exploitation of James’ vulnerability and his initiation into a network that defines complacent evil. But as the young man drifts from complicit witness to reluctant accomplice, the film loses its anchor and thus its humanity, leaving nothing but despair.

Kurzel’s direction is restrained, with none of the explicit gore that would draw genre fans. It’s a naturalistic dramatization that echoes the blood-chilling detachment with which 12 victims were dispatched over a period of seven years. Many of their bodies were finally discovered stuffed into barrels of acid in an abandoned bank vault in the rural community of Snowtown, 90 miles away.

Despite occasional pauses by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom) to admire the quality of the light, Snowtown is a pitiless and unpleasant exercise from beginning to end.

Venue: Festival de Cannes; opens Australia May 19
Production company: Warp Films Australia
Cast: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriter: Shaun Grant
Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw
Executive producers: Robin Gutch, Mark Herbert
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designers: Alice Babidge, Fiona Crombie
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Veronika Jenet
International sales: Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 115 minutes