Australian film has the ability to take the ordinary, the mundane and make it dirty and gritty, even downright uncomfortable. Evidence of this abounds in Snowtown, a 2011 film based on the ‘barrel murders’ of Snowtown in South Australia.
Snowtown (released in the USA as “The Snowtown Murders”) is not an easy film to watch. It touches upon peadophilia, alcohol and drug dependency, poverty, brutality and murder. Many have said that there are no redeeming characters or features in this film – but I disagree. While it makes for uncomfortable viewing, the character of serial killer John Bunting is disconcertingly captured by Daniel Henshaw who manages to be both charismatic and frightening at the same time. The film has a never-ending sense of claustrophobia conveyed emotionally through the characters, the working-class homes and neighbourhoods as well as the countryside where the story takes place. Country Australia – which would usually be portrayed as wide open and free becomes a restriced space without safety or shelter – the looming landscape offers no place to hide and this is beautifully shot and controlled throughout the film.
The plot revolves around Australia’s worst serial killer – John Bunting – but interrogates contemporary Australian abjectness conveyed through an underbelly (pardon the pun) of poverty and clichéd, outmoded masculinity. Protagonist Jamie is offered only two choices – to be a predator or be prey – his world-view becomes anchored in this postion due to personal experience and a distinct lack of other viable choices demonstrated by the adults or community surrounding him. Jamie’s lack of choice/s and his overwhelmingly brutal circumstances provide a lense into the sense of suffocation that permeate the film.
If you don’t know the story of the Snowtown murders then be prepared for a shock. If you do know the story, the film offers little explanation other than through the character of teenage Jamie (Lucas Pittaway). It’s very easy to see how and why Jamie fell under the influence of Bunting and to understand his actions thereafter – Jamie lacks any agency throughout the film and this is what makes it profoundly difficult to watch – sometimes circumstances dictate life’s outcomes and in this way, Jamie never stands a chance – the fact that he is not redeemed, that he does not ‘overcome’ his background to triumph leaves the viewer with a sense of hopelessness that while not satisfactory in the Hollywood sense, stays true to story. There is a scene toward the end of the film which is an aerial shot of Jamie driving an unsuspecting (and innocent) victim to his death – the shot shows us an aerial view of a literal crossroads – conventionally, the car would stop and then make the dramatic/narrative decision to ‘change course’ and choose a different route – and while this idea is flirted with in Snowtown, it is Jamie’s inability to make a different choice that pushes the film to its dreadful conclusion.
Snowtown is not a horror film – but it is horrific for while some of the violence is difficult to watch – the filmmaker does not flinch for a second. This is not an enjoyable film, not in the least. What it is is a compelling film that will stay with you long after the credits.