Re:View – ‘Snowtown’
The true story of Australia’s worst serial killer (the ‘Bodies in barrels’ murders) is a tough watch even though very little actual violence appears on screen in this ‘Mike Leigh In Hell’ tale of an Adelaide community that looks like a slightly down-at-heel suburban neighbourhood but turns out to have more brutalised deprivation than any inner-city sink estate.
In an atmosphere where sexual violence appears to be not only practiced but accepted, 16 year-old Jamie is virtually mute and diagnosed as schizophrenic. He and his two brothers have been abused by a neighbour, and now Jamie has sex casually forced upon him by his older brother. His mother is angry but helpless.
Into this mess steps John Bunting (the film’s only professional actor), who smiles and treats the children with kindness. He’s strong and decisive, and Jamie is understandably drawn to a father figure, as is his mother. In the worst twist of fate imaginable, Bunting is infinitely more dangerous than any casual abuser, first holding court in the kitchen with neighbours to discuss what to do to perverts, then taking action and dragging Jamie along for the ride.
After forcing the neighbouring pedophile out of his house (bombarding his porch with kangaroo guts helped) he draws up a list of new targets, including Jamie’s brother, who suffers in the film’s one protracted bout of torture, a scene which is nigh unwatchable.
What staggers is the appalling complicity of the community, including a cross-dresser who hates ‘fags’, obese mums and assorted white trash junkies. This is powerfully rendered with naturalistic performances and a still, distanced camera that captures the sheer mundanity of the killers’ actions. The dramatic problem is that with a near-catatonic lead and no-one else to invest in, it’s hard to fight the feeling that one should throw up one’s hands and write them all off.
It’s an electrifying piece of film-making, but one that presents its characters in an ant’s nest for us to study. Unlike, say, ‘Winter’s Bone’, there’s no glimmer of redemption on the horizon, and only worst to come in the generations yet to reach maturity.