MADMAN: As disturbing as it is accomplished, Justin Kurzel’s debut feature film is a compelling portrayal of the banality of evil.

The crimes of Australia’s worst known serial killer, John Bunting – dubbed the ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ killer by the media – need little introduction.

Between August 1992 and May 1999, Bunting and his cohorts, including 16 year old Jamie Vlassakis, killed at least 11 people in and around the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury North. The majority of their victims – ‘damaged, vulnerable people on the fringes of society’ according to ABC TV program The 7.30 Report – were members of the killers’ immediate social circle; two were even members of Vlassakis’s own family.

A police investigation sparked by the disappearance of the penultimate victim, Elizabeth Haydon, led investigators to a disused bank vault in Snowtown, 145 km north of Adelaide, where the bodies of eight of the victims were found in six large plastic barrels. More bodies were found in Salisbury North a few days later.

Director Justin Kurzel’s debut feature film, Snowtown, attempts to come to grips with these infamous events, which happened not in isolation, nor to strangers, but in the midst of suburbia, among friends.

After her three youngest children, including the withdrawn teenager Jamie, are sexually abused by a neighbour, Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) is quick to welcome the charismatic but manipulative John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) into her home. His tirades against paedophiles soon turn from rhetoric to action, and before long Elizabeth and Jamie are caught up in Bunting’s campaign to cleanse Salisbury North of bad influences – including homosexuals and heroin addicts, as well as child abusers.

Unlike its flashier splatter brethren such as Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek, Kurzel’s film avoids the bloody glamorisation of Bunting’s crimes. Instead, much like David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, Snowtown focuses on a young man drawn into a web of horror and brutality; exploring the events that turned Jamie Vlassakis into an active participant in torture and murder.

As played by non-professional actor Lucas Pittaway, Jamie is a passive, often silent character, at the mercy of his sexually abusive older brother Troy (Anthony Groves) and all too easily influenced by the people around him. Unfortunately for Vlassakis, the man he fixates on as a father figure – Bunting – is a sadistic psychopath.

Thanks in part to Adam Arkapaw’s accomplished and voyeuristic cinematography, the movie quickly and deliberately distances the audience from the events it depicts. This is not a film which asks the viewer to identify with its protagonists; rather, its actions unfold with the viewer held resolutely at arms length. Tight editing and an ominous score ensure that it remains a compelling and unsettling experience.

The involvement of mostly non-professional performers ensures that the audience is never distracted by stars pretending to be members of a socially and economically deprived underclass (a jarring flaw of Ana Kokkinos’s Blessed); and their presence, coupled with the film’s subdued realism and the filmmakers’ decision to shoot in the locales in which the movie is set, ensure an immediate and unsettling verisimilitude.

Conveying a palpable sense of menace and unease, Snowtown draws power from what it does not show, though its brief scenes of violence are disturbing in the extreme. Shaun Grant’s script is excellent, as is Kurzel’s direction. As Bunting, Henshall is a revelation: an attentive, charming monster, and utterly compelling.

The film is not entirely successful – the large cast of characters lack definition, and are occasionally indistinguishable as a consequence; while the final act of the film, once Jamie has actively participated in the crimes, lacks the palpable sense of tension that makes the first two thirds of the movie so memorable – but overall, Snowtown is a remarkable, albeit disturbing film, and a compelling portrayal of the banality of evil.

Director Justin Kurzel
Producers Anna McLeish & Sarah Shaw
Executive Producers Robin Gutch & Mark Herbert
Written by Shaun Grant
Cinematography Adam Arkapaw
Editor Veronika Jenet ASE
Sound Designer Frank Lipson MPSE
Composer Jed Kurzel

Opens nationally on Thursday May 19
Distributed by Madman Entertainment

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Richard Watts

Thursday 5 May, 2011

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts