Hell on Earth – Snowtown review

Snowtown – Staring Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway and Louise Harris. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

Few films can rightfully claim to offer its audience the opportunity to spend a couple hours in the bowels of hell, but Justin Kurzel might as well print up t-shirts saying as much to promote his feature film debut, Snowtown. It’s a grisly tale that brings to mind Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. I fear for the international viewers unfamiliar with the infamous Snowtown “barrel” murders that might go in expecting a Christmas-themed family romp (hmm, maybe Kurzel should get those shirts printed, to warn less discerning foreigners). The film is a great achievement in the sense that it depicts Australia’s most horrific series of killings in all their uncut glory, and will likely have viewers’ stomachs in knots (if not sending them to the bathroom to heave out the horrifying visuals they’ve just ingested). The picture is more concerned with the visceral experience; making us feel the events, rather than understand them. That’s both its chief accomplishment and its biggest failing.

Forgive me for referring to these true events as “plot” and these real life people as “characters”, but since we’re talking specifically about the film here – and it’s important to differentiate fact from fiction – it’s for the best. Snowtown begins with the pulsating score of Jed Kurzel and a disturbing monologue from young Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) in which he relates a bizarre dream about a Chihuahua. It is the most dialogue we’ll hear from him, and it’s fitting that his short speech is as perplexing, impenetrable, and oddly poetic as the rest of the film. Jamie lives with his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris), as well as his younger siblings and abusive step-brother Troy (Anthony Groves) in an Adelaide suburb where the malaise is so pungent the community rallies together like members of a cult; plotting revenge – and dreaming of murder – against the sex offenders, child molesters, homosexuals and intellectually disabled fellow residents. In sweeps John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), seemingly out of nowhere; he institutes himself as godhead of the wannabe vigilante posse, and as a father figure to Jamie, except, instead of bonding by playing catch and building boxcar racers, he teaches him to hunt, torture, kill, and eventually dismember specially selected victims.

Although the killings – and the storing of bodies in barrels – do not occur until the film’s last hour, all 120 minutes are equally difficult to watch. Scenes of child pornography, rape and brutal animal slaughter comprise the pic’s first “lighter” half. Kurzel expertly handles the tension; cinematographer Adam Arkapaw has a unique eye for the beauty in suburban ugliness; Shaun Grant’s screenplay has a real sense of place. Best of all is the virtuoso climax; perhaps the best and most intense flurry of demented, indelible imagery since Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. All of these elements combine to create a rare cinematic experience: a film that creates a universe that seems so different to our own, yet so similar at the same time; it plunges us into a world that we can’t bear to imagine is real, yet, most terrifyingly of all, absolutely is. It is based entirely on events that have already come to pass, just around the corner, only a few years ago, and perpetrated by people that are still alive. Snowtown is hell on Earth.

That primal, guttural filmmaking comes at the cost of characterisation. Although the performances – particularly Henshall’s – are top notch, I can’t help but feel that we don’t really get to know who these people are. I get the environment; I just don’t get the characters. Many of them emerge fully-formed, and don’t change an iota over the course of the film. The charming, murderous ringleader John Bunting is a force of nature; every other character merely reacts to him. Perhaps that is how it really was, but it doesn’t exactly make these people particularly interesting. Compare it to Animal Kingdom (as thousands will no doubt do); the characters there evolved and affected one another, and power relationships shifted. Not so here. It’s a tricky balancing act depicting murderers in film – if you make them seem too human, or not human enough, and explain away their motives, it can accidentally pardon them in the eyes of the viewer. Although I don’t feel as if that could ever happen with John Bunting, Kurzel and Grant don’t risk a thing by keeping us, emotionally, at arm’s length from our protagonists. Snowtown takes us to hell, but we never really get to meet the devil.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Snowtown arrives in Australian cinemas May 19, 2011. Check out our interview with director Justin Kurzel here.

4 Responses to “Hell on Earth – Snowtown review”

  1. Thanks for this review — I knew nothing of the film before now. I’ll be watching to add the movie to my Netflix queue when they offer it: it will most likely never play theatrically in my area.

  2. Hey Simon, if you’ve seen it, and after reading your review of Snowtown, is it possible for you to perhaps provide comparisons in your opinion between this and Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw The Devil? Being that the subject matter of I Saw The Devil, while fictional, seems to have that same no-holds-barred take on violence?

    I ask this because of your repeated allusion to Snowtown depicting “a hell”, and I Saw The Devil almost seems to provide the same kind of trip.

    • Hey Adam

      You might be the first person to actually ASK for my thoughts on a film, rather than letting me force my opinions down their throat – so thanks! I’ve not yet seen I SAW THE DEVIL – it just recently landed on my Quickflix Queue – but I’d be happy to offer some comparisons once I check it out.

      Likewise, if you see Snowtown, feel free to offer your own comparisons here!

  3. Interesting review and some good points raised.

    I thought was slow, irritating and pretentious. For me, it lacked any sort of driving narrative, sense of progression, and definable character motivations or objective. Perhaps that was the point.

    The performances were fine but not given any chance to shine. The soundtrack was great, though also did not rise to any significant heights.

    The film was like the stoned, illegitimate child of The Boys and Gerry who has foetal alcohol syndrome.

    There are several of these “mood” films coming out – short film plot extended to feature length. While I prefer a longer plot & character arc, I can get into being immersed into a feeling, so long as they don’t go for more than 90 minutes. Otherwise they should just make an art installation for a gallery.

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