Snowtown comes to DVD with a reputation for violence, intensity and people walking out of the cinema because they couldn’t stomach it. However if you’re expecting this to be gruesome, gory and basically the latest successor to Saw, you’ll be disappointed, as the strong reactions people have had to Snowtown are more to do with its psychological intensity and moral complexity than the on-screen violence – although it does have its moments.
Based on a true story and with a largely first-time cast and crew, Snowtown tells the story of teenager Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), living in a poor, deprived neighbourhood just outside Adelaide in Australia. It’s a place where abuse seems commonplace, with Jamie dealing with it not only from his mother’s boyfriend but also his own family. Then John (Daniel Henshall) starts dating Jamie’s mother, who initially seems to be a positive, charismatic force on Jamie and his family. John is slightly obsessed though with the paedophiles he feels are everywhere around preying on children, but even here his hands-on, slightly vigilante style appears designed to keep Jamie and his family safe.
However it soon becomes apparent that John isn’t just about painting ‘Fag’ on a suspected paedophile’s window, as he’s actually the leader of a gang that enjoys torturing and murdering people, all under the guise of cleaning up the streets. John draws Jamie in, and while the young man doesn’t really want to be part of it, he’s given little choice, until he’s not just complicit but fully involved.
Snowtown’s great strength is not making things easy for the audience. The opening of the movie makes John a kind of anti-hero, as in many others films the way he’s presented would make him a vigilante, Death Wish style heroic avenger. It’s only slowly that it’s revealed he’s something rather more dangerous, twisting the audience’s expectations and challenging our suppositions. A couple of times in Snowtown, people sit around a table discussing what they’d do to paedos and decrying the fact the authorities won’t help – it’s the sort of thing many people may say or think – but then the movie challenges us with someone who is actually taking the law into their own hands.
Snowtown constantly forces the viewer to re-evaluate things, and it’s this I feel that’s caused the walk-outs, where people either refuse to do their own thinking, or assume the movie is siding with John because they can’t comprehend a movie could actually have a complex, shifting point of view.
John is a brutal, terrifying and ruthless serial killer, but the people he’s killing are far from innocent. The scene most people will remember involves someone being tortured in a bath. The person being tortured is essentially a sociopathic rapist who has horribly abused his brothers, but John’s motivation for trying to kill him seems more about him talking back and disagreeing with him than some sort of moral crusade.
It gradually becomes clear the vigilante claims are merely a cover for John’s love of having power over life, death and other pwople. The morality of it as a viewer is wonderfully complex and it’s here that much of the movie’s power lies. Is John sympathetic? Is he a monster? Is Jamie an innocent being corrupted? Is he just as guilty because he says nothing? While Jamie has been sexually abused, is John’s emotional abuse in some ways even more insidious?
Snowtown rarely offers easy answers, and only very slowly reveals its hand. Coupled with tight editing and sound design that constantly builds intensity while rarely letting go of the jugular, it’s quite a ride. There’s no doubt that Snowtown isn’t a fun watch, but for the intelligent viewer looking for a well-made drama/thriller that’s tough due to the morally complex picture it paints and its constant challenging of audience assumptions, it’s a great film. It’s often said film is a passive medium, but this sort of film demands constant thought about what you’re being shown, it becomes rather active.
The actual on-screen violence is actually a lot less gory than many other films, but it’s the intensity of the experience that ensures this will really stick with you. Smart, penetrating, sometimes difficult to watch and superbly played – particularly by Lucas Pittaway and Daniel Henshall as Jamie and John – Snowtown is a gripping and disturbing watch.
The film is accompanied by some decent extras, including a Q&A and audio commentary with director Justin Kurzel, which gives some background on how he went in to making the film – which is so assured it’s incredible this is his first feature. Also worth a look is ‘The Snowtown Crimes’, which is a largely text-based featurette giving background on the real crimes the movie is based, which resulted in John Bunting being imprisoned for 11 killings and dubbed ‘Australia’s worst serial killer’. It’s particularly fascinating as it reveals how easy it would have been to have produced a typical, straightforward take on the tale. Snowtown actually misses out huge chunks of the story in order to concentrate on how Jamie became part of the murderous gang, and in doing so the film draws the viewer much further in that a more typical movie ever could have.
Overall Verdict: A disturbing, gripping, powerful movie, that paints a far more fascinating and morally complex picture of murder than most films could even dream of creating. It’s not easy viewing, but it’s immensely rewarding for the switched-on viewer.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac