Film Review: Snowtown

This film is based on the true story of the infamous Snowtown “Bodies in Barrels” murders in Southern Australia during the 1990’s.

Daniel Henshall’s mesmerizing performance as John Bunting; the vigilante/serial killer and ring leader of the 4 people eventually convicted is what holds this film together.  Although Henshall seems to have little film acting experience (according to imdb) and certainly hasn’t had to carry a film before, he is absolutely electrifying and this should certainly propel him onto great things and more prominent roles.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he follows Joel Edgerton into mainstream American cinema.

I can’t recall the “Bodies in Barrels” murders making many headlines over here, unlike the “Backpacker Murders” which were around the same time and I remember distinctly.  But the “Bodies in Barrels” murders are equally horrific and Bunting is recognised as one of Australia’s most prolific and brutal serial killers.

“Bodies in Barrels” comes from one of the storage methods that Bunting and his accomplices used: the bodies were placed in large barrels and covered with hydrochloric acid which, rather than dissolve the victims as they had hoped, actually mummified them.

Bunting was clearly the controlling leader of this small band of murderers.  He had already coerced Robert Joe Wagner into becoming his accomplice and that relationship is already established when this film commences.  Instead the film focuses on Bunting’s relationship and coercion of Jamie Vlassakis into their group.  The fourth member convicted, Mark Haydon, is a peripheral figure in the film which is most likely due to the fact that he was convicted of helping to move the bodies rather than taking part in the murders.

Jamie lives in abject poverty with his mum and 3 brothers.  Jamie and his 2 younger brothers are being abused by a family friend/neighbour and when this comes to light Bunting and Wagner turn up to harass the neighbour until he moves.  From this point on Bunting develops his relationship with the family and begins to focus on Jamie whom he can control and convince to be a part of his vigilante movement.

Lucas Pittaway also gives a strong performance as Jamie – there is one scene in particular where Jamie waits in one room while a murder takes place in the bathroom; the camera lingers on Jamie while we hear what is going on in the bathroom – he is a picture of confusion, fear and despair.

I found the direction of the film from Justin Kurzel to be a little disjointed.  It looks as though real poverty stricken locations are used that give it authenticity and also a documentary sense, especially as most camera shots have a hand held feel.  The film is also gritty and brutally violent, both implied and explicit which makes it quite a disturbing piece to watch.

However, my main concern with the direction, and this is where I feel it becomes disjointed, is the lingering shots of locations and close ups of insignificant objects that seems to have become a standard cliché used in many low budget and indie films.  So much so that it feels like a gimmick and, to me, means the film loses any opportunity it had to have a unique style.

Given Henshall’s outstanding performance where he treads a fine balance between jovial and frighteningly psychotic – reminding me much of Paddy Considine in A Room for Romeo Brass – I do feel he was deserving of a more complete vision for the film as a whole.

Aside from Henshall, the film’s main strength is that it is not a police procedural or a standard serial killer slasher: instead, the focus seems to be more on family and the roles within it.  Because as Bunting charms his way into the family he begins to assume the father’s role, not dissimilarly, uncomfortably, to the family friend/neighbour at the beginning of the film.

It’s not an easy film to watch, the subject matter ensures that, but for Henshall’s performance alone it is compelling viewing.

My Rating: 3.5/5


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