Review: Snowtown (2011)

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Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris

There’s a fine line between genuinely harrowing and exploitative, and director Justin Kurzel has deftly walked it in helming Snowtown, now known as The Snowtown Murders to the filmgoing public. Focusing on Australia’s most notorious serial killer John Bunting as he takes the unassuming young Jamie Vlassakis under his wing, the uncommonly charismatic psychopath uses a typical neighborhood watch program as a front for the terrible things he and his accomplices do to those deemed unworthy of living another day. Remaining appropriately if relentlessly grim in its depiction of the heinous acts committed by Bunting and his unwilling understudy, Snowtown is a unique enough experience to warrant a view from those self-deemed “hardened” viewers.

As a figurative father figure, Henshall’s Bunting is precisely what the doctor ordered for the Vlassakis family, regularly rallying against the area’s sexual predators in an often excessive fashion thanks to the help of a busybody cross-dresser. Befriending and eventually seducing the boys’ mother Liz, John becomes a regular fixture at family dinners and the like, all of which unsubtly segues into Jamie’s happening upon the man’s sinister double life as a torturous murderer. Given the true story angle of the proceedings, there’s quite literally no room for any particular sense of anything upbeat, the film itself serving as a sort of paean to the power of bold storytelling in relation to its subject matter.

The depictions of the murders themselves, one in particular, are agreeably distressing and hard to watch as such, but for a film considered an endurance test for the weak-willed, I didn’t really expect much less. As for the bulk of the film, I found myself unable to sympathize with Pittaway’s Jamie as his naivety and unnatural desire to aid John after initially shunning the charming maniac turn him into as unlikable a character as the latter himself. Laborious pacing unfortunately plagues Snowtown‘s second half, proving to us that the nearly hour’s worth of moments leading up to the murders were for naught as the scenes in question have little going for them outside of their unflinching presentation, authentically depicting the depravity coinciding with the infamous late 90s murder spree.

All things considered, Henshall’s portrayal of Bunting is the talk of the town, and for good reason. His performance is eerily believable, chilling as such and easily outshines the efforts of everyone else involved, letting the film’s above average cinematography and technical prowess partially compensate for what it lacks in terms of well-rounded characters. Lucas Pittaway’s Jamie, for all intents and purposes, serves as a less-than-captivating centerpiece that bodes fairly well in Henshall’s shadow despite the latter’s commanding presence, however his subdued, moreover passive persona’s been done to death as of late and comes off as annoying once things start to pick up.

As a frequently distressing biopic, director Kurzel’s hit the nail on the head with Snowtown. Unrelenting in every sense of the word from its grimy, dreadfully bleak visual aesthetic to the depiction of the murders themselves, the film in question sports several promising attributes that fail to comprise one successful whole. It’s deliberate pacing is ultimately its downfall, leading us to believe that things will pick up substantially once the going gets tough, however that transition isn’t as fully realized as it should be, forcing us to struggle through another hour’s worth of more disturbing sequences that accentuate the sadistic killer’s quirks and relationship with his unwilling accomplice rather than the brutality of all they’d done throughout their awful bidding. It isn’t an easy watch and it’s not without its faults, but for the brave, Snowtown is a unique viewing experience that shouldn’t be missed despite my slight dissatisfaction.

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2 comments on “Review: Snowtown (2011)

  1. Ty says:

    You seem to have the exact same take on the film as I did. Did it not remind you of Animal Kingdom? Insight into violence/crime, passive protagonist, etc. Although, Jamie is much better here than the lead in AK. I actually knew nothing about this film before watching it, other than the serial killer plot line. The whole first act was really satisfying for me since it takes time to develop and you’re left wondering what will happen. I obviously suspected Bunting from the get-go, but his built in charisma still left me questioning Bunting’s intentions. But yeah, once it starts to get into the murders, I was semi-turned off by the film’s bleakness, which is needed, but ultimately “been there, done that.” I did appreciate the minimalistic quality in regards to avoiding the whole procedural aspect, yada, yada.

    • afilmodyssey says:

      It did remind me of Animal Kingdom, if only by way of its passive young lead. As for the minimalistic approach it takes, I agree that it functions a lot better than what it could have been if the powers-that-be chose to embrace a schlocky torture porn approach. As a whole, I enjoyed it, more specifically the slow motion shots that dubbed over with the forced tape recordings of Bunting’s victims. Technically proficient, yet the bleakness of it seems to be its weak point despite the predictability of this attribute as a whole.

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