Australia has distinguished itself recently recently with a handful of dramas based on true crime stories; Animal Kingdom, one of the best, did a US tour of duty, and garnered an Oscar nomination for Aussie actress Jackie Weaver. This week, Snowtown, based on the notorious Bodies in the Barrels story, hits theaters; it's another worthy addition to a genre that is gaining traction with filmmakers, audiences, and critics Down Under.
I'm very familiar with the 'Snowtown' story, so I needed zero introduction or explanation of the narrative gaps the film doesn't address. International audiences not familiar with the story may have trouble with the film's broader context because director Justin Kurzel does little to paint it, let alone explain the title (it's the name of the town where the film's victims were entombed in barrels).
Tonally, Snowtown has more in common with Rowen Woods' The Boys, a superior work, than Animal Kingdom. A low budget production, it focuses on a small cast of characters through the eyes of Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), an impressionable, rudderless young man whose world is turned upside down by a man, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who appears to offer a solution to the shithole that is his life. Unfortunately for Jamie, Bunting's solutions to his and a slew of local "problems" (including homosexuality) involve murder, betrayal, dismemberment, rape, torture, and assorted perversions -- committed under the pretext of vigilantism. Like the hero of Kinatay (reviewed in previous blog), Jamie finds himself spiralling helplessly downwards into an abyss of utter madness -- in this case, a strange kind of suburban madness, portrayed with chilling realism by all concerned -- under the tutelage of older adults who come bearing gifts of mature guidance.
The film opens with a wrong-headed voiceover that reeks of post-production jitters. Thankfully, this redundant gimmick is jettisoned lickety-split, allowing director Kurzel to get on with business. From the opening frames to the closing ones, the film's trance-like sound design plays a major role in establishing the grim, relentless tone. Credit Jez Kurzel with the hypnotic score and Frank Lipson with the crack sound design.
Though based on a true story, the story on screen doesn't feel like anything particularly new or original because key details of its origin story are ignored or glossed over. It's as if the filmmakers were too afraid to tick off certain plot details out of fear that they would offend relatives of the victims. 'Snowtown' has forever been associated with The Bodies in the Barrels, but you wouldn't know it here. At some juncture, the killers were forced to move their victims' bodies from one location to another. That second location was a bank vault. The bodies were stuffed into large, plastic barrels and left there. The crimes became public when the barrels surrendered their ghastly cargo. In Snowtown, we see barrels in the background of a handful of scenes, but anybody unfamiliar with the story would have no inkling of their significance.
As horror, this film delivers the goods. We're treated to homosexual rape, hints of pedophilia, strangulation, torture, and good, old-fashioned animal killing. The film is intense, with leads Pittaway (a natural first-timer) and Henshall (stunningly good!) confidently carrying heavy dramatic loads on their shoulders. Henshall's bigoted, corrupting patriarch is worth the price of admission alone. What a piece of work he is!
Like The Boys, Animal Kingdom, Blue Murder (the best crime drama ever produced in Australia), and the little seen Shame (just released on DVD Down Under), Snowtown's milieu is a dark, disturbing, horribly homophobic and racist underbelly of Aussie culture that is the product of nobody's imagination. An an Australian who has traveled broadly within the country, I can vouch for the chilling reality on display in these movies. It mightn't be pretty, but it's a side of Australia that is alive, well, and busy reproducing like vermin.
Just as the film begins with a wrong-headed choice, it ends with a surprising whimper. For mine, it totally cops out by not depicting the ultimate fate of the killers -- or at least how they were busted. Instead, it offers five or six sentences of explanation to pick up the slack it leaves us. Why describe in writing what should have been described on screen? For Australians who know the story, this decision to avoid a big bang ending isn't quite so tragic because the story is familiar. For those unfamiliar with the story, it will probably be a letdown.
Still, this is a film that is well worth chasing down and experiencing. One hundred plus minutes inside a world as depraved and morally bankrupt as this is the kind of "entertainment" that rattles you without a reach-around. Cruel, yes, but compelling, nonetheless, for adventurous punters.
Interestingly, the 'Snowtown' story has already been vividly and more graphically depicted in the amazing and intense 'Crime Investigation Australia' series, a brutal TV anthology of lurid docudramas that explode any myth that Australia is all about dancing transvestites, yahoos fighting crocodiles, and boxing kangaroos. .
Available on video in Australia, this series (and this episode) are highly, highly recommended; the 'Snowtown' entry represents a more exploitative, linear take on the story, hitting every grisly and grotesque punchline in its presentation of the crimes.
Other recommended crime features and TV from the proud penal colony:
Scales of Justice