Movie Review: The Snowtown Murders (2012)
With his debut, The Snowtown Murders, based on John Bunting’s (Daniel Henshall) crime spree (see “Bodies in Barrels murders”), director Justin Kurzel goes for broke and pulls no punches, utilizing true performances and even truer performers. Admirably, much of the film’s cast is individuals with little to no acting experience, yet the authenticity does not distract from the film’s effect on its viewership. At two hours, Snowtown is bursting with beauty amidst an undeniably violent and terrifying premise: a house and family thoroughly manipulated by a psychopath, its members unable or unwilling to escape as Bunting commits a host of atrocities rivaling more prominent devils.
One of Australia’s worst serial killers, Bunting is serving eleven consecutive life sentences without a chance of parole for a series of murders committed from August 1992 to May 1999, wherein he mainly enlisted the aid of three individuals: Robert Wagner (Aaron Viergever), James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), and Mark Ray Haydon (David Walker). The enlisted individuals were not at all strangers to Bunting and neither were his victims, and Kurzel’s direction says as much, focusing on Bunting’s father-figure relation to James and his general-like command over Robert, Mark, and others—neighbors and family sit around the Vlassakis table and nod proudly, even occasionally chime-in as Bunting details uncompromising scenes of torture for alleged pedophiles.
Bunting appears without explanation in Snowtown—the viewer learns he is a new boyfriend to Ms. Valasskis—and almost immediately the boys take a liking to him. He initiates tactics to rid the neighborhood of their pedophile, whom the boys had been molested by some scenes prior (they use vanilla ice cream to scrawl hateful names on his windows and later Bunting tosses kangaroo parts across the pedophile’s front-patio sofa; the man eventually moves out). In Snowtown, most events transpire without prolonged-voiceover expositions, unless the viewer counts James’ opening monologue, that, rather than explaining events leading up to the film, only contributes to the film’s initial perplexity for the viewer, a perplexity that is perhaps intentional even if somewhat unintended, by Kurzel and crew.
Kurzel’s story, penned by Shaun Grant, owes much to several texts that more thoroughly documented the spree—The Snowtown Murders, by Andrew McGarry, and Killing for Pleasure, by Debi Marshall—and, of course, to court transcripts. This is not to say that Snowtown exists solely because of (or is based on) the texts, but that there is a confluence of source put into this dramatic reimagining of the spree. This, too, is perhaps Snowtown’s only hiccup, that it relies so heavily on source, so that its viewership, if they enter unfamiliar with Bunting and his exploits, is lost, leading to a dizzying, muddled sense of “What did I just watch?” upon exit.
Snowtown is not for the faint of heart, but it is also most certainly not a glorification of serialized murders. What Snowtown is is perhaps more explained in its attention to cinematography. The film was shot by Adam Arkapaw, who himself is a painter on the side, and with his touch, therein lies the beauty of the film (without it, the film might run more mumblecored, zapped of all or most drama). A few still shots increase intensity amidst movement, and there are the meaningful zoom-ins on whistling teakettles and feeding snakes, but, more importantly, much of the murder and gory after-product is kept off-screen or out of the film entirely. It is a decision that narrows the film’s effect, sure, but a risk that pays huge dividends. In deciding to keep (most) gore off-screen, Kurzel and crew had to find more interesting, nuanced vehicles to deliver terror. Terror that is present in scenes of unnerving calm as well—Bunting coolly watching a heavy woman strip or the Vlassakis boys modeling nude—gods know what else—for the neighborhood pedophile while he babysits.
Audio recordings of victims being forced to call their families and tell them not to worry is one of the vehicles. And then there is Bunting’s domineering, his hold over the Vlassaskises; Bunting demanding James shoot Bunting’s German Shepard dead, and, when James is unsuccessful, grabbing the gun and finishing the assignment himself. There are a few more horrific scenes that maybe don’t need detailed here, if the reviewer does not want a WordPress disclaimer daring readers to proceed, but are further examples of what makes this film swim farther and faster in a crowded, angry genre. Not floating, but floating.
The Snowtown Murders. Directed by Justin Kurzel. With Daniel Henshall (John), Lucas Pittaway (Jamie), Aaron Viergever (Robert), and David Walker (Mark). Released August 14, 2012, by MPI Home Video.
Jason Teal is a founding editor of HEAVY FEATHER REVIEW. His work has appeared in METAZEN, RED LIGHTBULBS, NAP, and SUSQUEHANNA REVIEW. His reviews have been published in MID-AMERICAN REVIEW, where he served as managing editor.