For my final (re: fifth) film of the day I made the uncharacteristic rookie mistake of confusing my venues. Being at the Embassy Theatre all day, I had foolishly assumed the Australian true-crime film Snowtown would also be screening there. Nope. I was coming out of Beginners just as Snowtown was scheduled to start down the road the Paramount. Thankfully, there was a short I had already seen (Meathead) screening beforehand and, after hauling ass, I made it before the main feature.
Snowtown is based on the real events surrounding one of Australia's worst serial killers, John Bunting. Before Bunting even enters the picture, we are introduced to 16 year old Jamie and his rather dysfunctional family: his father isn't around, his mother Elizabeth is unemployed, he has an abusive older brother and two younger brothers in Alex and Nicholas. To top it off, his mum's boyfriend Jeffrey (within the first 10 minutes no less), has the boys pose for photographs in their underwear and, in Jamie's case, nude. Elizabeth has no idea of this horror perpetrated on her boys by a man she trusts, and who lives across the street no less. This is when John Bunting enters the picture. An informal "support group" springs up around the family's kitchen table and Bunting emerges as something of a fixer, a problem solver. He spends more and more time with the family, rarking up Jeffrey and vandalising his house. Bunting becomes a fixture of stability for the family and a charming alpha male prepared to stand up for them, in his own violent way.
The first hint that Bunting is someone approaching the torrid rapids of psychopathy is when Jamie awakes one morning to find him chopping up kangaroos to toss at Jeffrey's house. John Bunting is nothing more or less than a charming, controlling full blown violent psychopath. He sees himself as ridding the world of evils: paedophiles, homosexuals, weirdos, junkies... they're all lumped together in his worldview. Into his twisted orbit he brings Jamie, slowly building a connection with him and becoming a mentor-oppressor to the young man. Jamie is similar in a lot of respects to J, the protagonist from last year's Festival great Animal Kingdom; they're both young men, struggling to find a way out of their situation but barely communicating with anyone and remaining something of an enigma. But where J finds a way out for himself, on his own terms, Jamie is forcibly pulled into Bunting's world.
That is the first feature film for a large part of the cast and crew; director Justin Kurzel, writer Shaun Grant, the producers and the entirety of the main cast bar Daniel Henshall as John Bunting, is nothing short of staggering. This is a supremely confident film, Kurzel assured in his craft. The film itself is disturbing and disconnected; large swathes of time and events are skipped over and you really have to pay attention to keep up. Significant events are alluded to but not explicitly mentioned and character motivations remain muddy at the best of times. The disconnection, and suggestive gruesomeness (Bunting and his "associates" had their victims leave recorded messages telling any loved ones good-bye and to not come looking), only serves to make Snowtown more disturbing, more unsettling; you are constantly having to re-orient yourself and find your feet. A day or so removed from the film, I'm still not entirely sure what I make of it. A confident, well-made film that attempts to examine true, horrific evil I struggled to make a connection to it. Whether that is because the choices by the filmmakers left me removed, or if I removed myself from it, shying away from the nature of proceedings, I am unsure.