Snowtown is the true story of Australian serial killer John Bunting and 16-year-old boy named Jamie, whose lives become sickeningly and irreparably embroiled. Jamie and his brothers are abused by their mother’s boyfriend and when the word gets out a manhunt ensues to find him. In a community throughout which poverty and sexual abuse of children has become endemic and largely ignored by the police, vigilantism is touted as the only alternative. A worrying solution appears in the form of John Bunting, the authoritative and intelligent man who becomes a father figure not only for Jamie but for the entire community, each member in their own way pining for answers, for acceptance, for some distraction from the brutal reality of their incestuously insular existences.
Managing to create an air of stiflingly claustrophobia from the very beginning, Snowtown makes its audience feel as trapped as Jamie; a boy who cannot escape his poverty or the unspeakable violence that begins to unfold. Neither he nor the audience is offered a point of respite from the barrage of horrors, and although the run time is modest, Snowtown feels like a real quest to get through. We are placed behind the terrified eyes of the protagonist – forced to watch as unspeakable atrocities take place around us.
Evidently aware of the power of its central tale, the cinematography is stunted, washed out, simple, stark and bleak. Never do the scenes fail to be ominous; never does the sense of claustrophobia and of genuine terror let up. Silence follows screaming, the camera does not flinch from the lost gaze of the young boy embroiled in something he cannot understand, as well as the steady, intense eye of the killer, never loosening his grip on his victims.
John Bunting, played brilliantly by Daniel Henshall, mesmerises as a man who swings between the desire to provide care for those he sees as family, and the horrifying acts he is somehow able to commit. Caring for his battered community, and showing what seems genuine affection to John’s little brothers, it is easy to see why he was able to continue his ritual killings for so long. Trust, even dependence, on a monstrously disturbed figure is portrayed expertly throughout.
And Henshall is not the only performer to impress. Lucas Pitaway, in his cinematic debut, plays Jamie; a gentle and vulnerable boy bound by the social system he was born into, and facing the direst consequences of its perversions. Almost of the actors Snowtown showcases are taken from the local community in which the original murders took place – and the resulting performances are unsettling in their sincerity. It is this commitment to the original story, and the respect with which the source material is treated that means Snowtown gets away with how graphic it is. Yes, the audience is forced to see everything the way it truly is; up close, every bruise, every limb, every drop of blood, but it is clear that director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant are not providing shocks just for the hell of it. They want their audience to know not just the gruesome details of the murderer’s method, but the gruesome detail of the life, the community, and the society that spawned him to begin with. It’s difficult stuff to watch, but it’s utterly compelling cinema.
Snowtown is director Justin Kurzel’s first film, and his screenwriter notes that “he wanted to give the film a dignity”. Another director may have sensationalised a true story with all the grit and gore ready-made, but Kurzel and his team worked closely within the community where the atrocities occurred to produce something real, something dignified in its horror.