When sixteen-year old Jamie Vlassakis is introduced to a charismatic man, a friendship begins.As the relationship grows so do Jamie’s suspicions, until he finds his world threatened by both his loyalty for, and fear of, his newfound father-figure John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer.
SNOWTOWN is based on the true story of the notorious South Australian “Bodies in Barrels murders” of the 1990s. Although the movie superficially resembles a true crime feature, it is something more. Australian cinema has produced crime films based on true stories before, such as CHOPPER, ANIMAL KINGDOM and the horror film WOLF CREEK. However Australian cinema has never produced a film like this before.
The film is an unsettling and unflinching portrayal of evil flourishing in the most ordinary of circumstances. The northern suburbs of Adelaide where Jamie lives are tough and poor. This is not a middle-class setting, the Rafters don’t live next door. The audience is introduced to this world and then asked to watch events unfold and see how a dozen murders were committed without anyone suspecting these crimes were occurring.
Part of the answer is that those who went missing were already way beneath the radar – economically and socially. Many of the characters in this story are simply lost souls. Jamie is one of four boys. They have no father living with them and their mother has no idea how to protect her children – even though she has fiercely protective impulses. She brings John Bunting into their lives. At first, he seems to be exactly what they need; a strong character who wants to look after his new family. Unfortunately, what John Bunting thinks is right is tragically abnormal. He appears to care, but is completely ego-driven and has no moral centre. He believes he has a strong moral code, but he breaks society’s rules with impunity. Using the force of his personality to persuade his gang to take part in the murders is one of the things he relishes. Controlling others is his ultimate aim and in the community he joins, there are plenty of victims for him to prey on.
The film is mostly told from Jamie’s point of view and seems to argue that he is another one of Bunting’s victims. What writer Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel are saying exactly, isn’t a simple matter to interpret. We are not spoon-fed easy answers or judgements. The audience follows Jamie down into the increasingly darker levels of his existence and it’s a journey not everyone will want to take. Be warned, parts of this film are confronting and will be a test of your voyeuristic impulses. Jamie, Bunting and the other members of the gang committed awful crimes and SNOWTOWN attempts to show us how it all happened, if not necessarily why.
Lucas Pittaway plays Jamie. He is one of a number of untrained actors in the film. Kurzel elicits an amazing performance from the newcomer. He is a passive character who speaks very little, but his emotions are very readable. Daniel Henshall makes his feature debut as John Bunting. His subtle and layered portrayal of Bunting keeps the audience on its toes. Louise Harris plays Jamie’s mother Elizabeth. She is also untrained and yet utterly believable.
This film will not be to everyone’s taste, however it is a powerful exploration of evil, made with care and integrity. In some ways, I hesitate to recommend this movie because it will disturb some viewers greatly and if you want to be entertained at the movies, this is not your film. I am also mindful that Australian films are often accused of being light-weight, badly-written and pointless. SNOWTOWN is a gritty film that dramatises acts most will find hard to watch – as we should. This Australian film is saying things about the society we live in, even if we find these things hard to face.
True crime as a genre usually has the comforting balm of punishment included in the formula. We see terrible things, but the perpetrators are brought to justice. SNOWTOWN is about a world where justice and protection of the innocent simply do not exist.
SNOWTOWN is in Australian cinemas now. It runs for 120 minutes. I rated it 3.5/5.
Note: We interviewed director Justin Kurzel and will post that story later this weekend.