Cannes Movie Review: Snowtown (2011)

Daniel Henshall in Snowtown
Photo: WARP Films Australia

As I was putting together my list of films to be sure to see in Cannes this year an Australian crime drama called Snowtown, from first time feature director Justin Kurzel, jumped out at me. Comparisons to last year’s Oscar-nominated film Animal Kingdom, also an Australian production, are quite easy to make as a teen finds himself in the center of some disturbing criminal activity. Snowtown makes serial killing a “family” affair as it focuses on John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, and how he manipulated a 16-year-old boy into collaborating on a heinous series of crimes.

Beginning in 1998, Snowtown‘s opening moments introduce us to 16-year-old Jaimie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), his two brothers and their mother, Elizabeth (Louise Harris). In addition to living in the dilapidated community of Snowtown, South Australia, trouble begins early for Elizabeth and her three boys as a neighbor uses a request to look after the boys as an opportunity to molest them. As quietly heroic as the boys seem to take it, things don’t get better from here as their mother immediately thereafter begins dating John (Daniel Henshall) who’s none-too-pleased with the neighbor across the street and uses his act of pedophilia as a catalyst for a murder spree now referred to as the Bodies in Barrels murders.

No, “Bodies in Barrels” doesn’t sound good and yes, it is exactly what you think. However, the buzz around this film being some sort of ultra-violent feature one must watch only before eating their lunch as opposed to after is off-base. It’s not as gruesome as all that, especially for anyone that recently saw Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil or have frequented the films in the Saw franchise. Yet, there were several walkouts at my screening, but even those make for a curious conversation.

My assumption is viewers were walking out of Snowtown due to its realism. This isn’t a desaturated and glossy Hollywood feature, it’s a down in the dirt white-knuckler and that can tend to churn an audience member’s cookies a bit more than today’s run-of-the-mill CG blood splatter features. Even still, it shocks me to see audience members sit through a scene where three young boys are photographed in their underwear and another where Jaimie is raped by his half-brother only to begin walking out when a dog is shot offscreen, followed by a mass exodus when a toenail is visibly removed with a pair of pliers. Yeah, animal cruelty isn’t fun, but isn’t it curious what audiences have managed to numb themselves to compared to what they won’t stand for? It’s a wonder why the MPAA isn’t harder on violence the same way it is sex.

Additionally, the violence isn’t all that frequent, but I will admit it does put you on edge. The film’s one true achievement is the manner in which the story is laid out. Kurzel does a great job introducing the audience to the madness that is John in slow bursts. Even the way in which he carries out and covers up his crimes is told in bits and pieces until you get to the scene where the entire process is played before your eyes.

As John’s process is fully revealed Jaimie realizes who the man he has come to idolize and look up to truly is. Yet, John has already keyed into all of Jaimie’s weaknesses. He has him in the palm of his hand to the point he transitions into becoming an accomplice, seemingly of his own free will.

As John, Henshall is perfect. He manages to create a character you wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting in the same room with, regardless of whether or not you were privy to his crimes. Newcomer Lucas Pittaway, whom Kurzel said he found in a shopping mall, has an appearance that is a curious mix of Heath Ledger and James Franco. I can’t say he was great, as he does have his ups and downs when it comes to showing real emotion, but the role primarily asks him to be a doe-eyed wallflower and in that case he’s a star.

Where I ran into problems with the film was with what wasn’t said, and keep in mind this is a two hour film as is. It could have been a three hour epic, giving us a bit more on John’s history, going beyond where the film decides to end and going into greater examination of the choice in victims from one to the other. There’s a moment where we see the spider web of names John is targeting on a wall like something A Beautiful Mind‘s John Nash would have devised, but outside of the table conversations had in the film — which frankly become a bit repetitive — we don’t get much more detail. Then again, perhaps that’s because John has already dubbed these people as nobodies, nothing, people that won’t be missed. Either way, I would have sat for more.

It’s infrequent I wish for a film to be longer, but I could have easily watched this one swell to three hours, at which point it may have knocked the Cannes crowd’s socks off, like A Prophet two years ago, and been entered in the actual competition as opposed to just the Critic’s Week sidebar. Nevertheless, as a first time feature effort Justin Kurzel has turned in a solid film and tapped into something primal with the aide of his actors and a pounding, yet minimal score by Kurzel’s brother, Jed. I wouldn’t necessarily say I need to see it again, but I’m glad I saw it once and will be sure to keep an eye out for Kurzel’s work in the future.