Snowtown Review: The Living End

SNOWTOWN (18): On General Release Friday 18th November

Australian drama is really making waves at the moment.  The utterly superb Animal Kingdom released earlier this year was rightly lauded and Jacki Weaver was honoured with an Oscar nomination for her performance.  The list continues to grow with Snowtown, a bleak uncompromising and consequently devastating film about the Australia’s most infamous serial killings, the “bodies in barrels” murders of the 1990s.

The events unfold from the point of view of 16 year old Jamie Vlassakis (non-professional actor Lucas Pittaway), a young man who lives with his separated mother and two brothers in an impoverished Australian suburb.  Things start to look up when the charismatic John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) arrives on the scene.  He has a blokey laid-back charm and brings the boys a vestige of stability: he cooks them meals, buys them presents and brings money to the poor family. At first he seems like their saviour.

But he also acts as a mouthpiece for the local community, spouts vicious anti-gay rhetoric and practically foams at the mouth with an all-consuming hatred of paedophiles.  It’s no surprise that Jamie looks up to him: on the surface, his chummy persona fills the void left by the lack of a father figure and for the first time in his life, Jamie has a role model.

It’s not long before John starts to exert a more malign influence on Jamie and his brothers – the boyishly harmless pranks of throwing ice cream at windows soon escalate when John makes them pour the dismembered remains of a kangaroo on a paedophile’s porch.  But would John go so far as to commit the even more sinister deeds that he often brags about?

It’s a difficult film to watch and probably not one anyone should go into without fair warning but there’s a remarkable amount of restraint shown by first time director Justin Kurzel.   Most of the horrific violence happens off screen, Kurzel is more interested in exploring the reasons and consequences of Bunting’s actions, not glorifying senseless violence.  He does this with some canny camera work: handheld footage paints their suburban life in with a sense of home-video immediacy; slowed down and speeded up footage invests even the everyday with a sinister malignancy and tension builds to buttock-clenching intensity.

Newcomer Lucas Pittaway is outstanding as Jamie, an impressionable youth who watches impassively like a passenger in his own life, dumbly nodding and smiling while John cheerfully guides him down a dark path.  The rest of the non-professional cast are equally good and underscore a community desperate to gain some control of its own future. But the star, the real lynchpin of the movie is Daniel Henshall as Bunting – a chatty, seemingly warm-hearted chap who becomes all the more terrifying for his apparent harmlessness.

Snowtown is a tense, gripping and brutal film, with fantastic performances across the board, commanding cinematography and powerful direction. It’s not pleasant or casual viewing but it’s certainly one of the best films to come out of Australia in recent years, one of the highlights of The London Film Festival and one of the most intense films of the year.

Follow Jez Sands on Twitter.