Snowtown Murders - SideReel Review

Snowtown Murders - SideReel Review

"I keep having this dream where I wake up in my bed, and all I can hear is this yapping. I go in the hall and I see this guy sitting in a chair. He’s got a cap on and his head’s down, so I can’t see his face. I yell at him, but the guy won’t look at me. And the yapping’s getting louder and louder. I walk down and say, ‘Hey mate, you alright?,’ but he just sits there -- says nothing. I lift his head up with my hands, and he’s got this cut across his neck. It looks like a big mouth. I lean down closer, and I see this Chihuahua sitting inside his neck, looking back at me. Yapping. Yapping at me."

This monologue, spoken in monotone over a fluid shot of a sprawling plain racing by under a cloudy sky -- and complimented by a soundtrack that evokes a quickening pulse -- begins Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders, one of the most harrowing and hauntingly vivid true-crime dramas ever committed to film.

Single mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) lives in a cramped house in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, Australia, with her four young sons. When Elizabeth's current boyfriend reveals himself to be a pedophile, a charismatic new arrival named John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) drives him out of the neighborhood while laying on the charm, and in the process he captures the attention of her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Pittaway). But as Jamie grows closer to Bunting, he learns that the amiable stranger's quick smile masks a dark secret. Bunting is a killer who uses the argument of vigilantism to justify his homicidal transgressions. Along with the help of a small but loyal crew, he quietly murders junkies, pedophiles, and anyone else he deems a danger to society. And the moment Jamie comes into his orbit, the taciturn teenager’s fate has been sealed.

Even before we’ve met a single character in The Snowtown Murders, that chilling opening monologue has accomplished something genuinely remarkable -- it’s created deeply unsettling mental imagery without showing us a single frame of violence. It’s a bold technique that pays off handsomely by setting a tone of anxious desperation that permeates the entire film. Likewise, by surrounding professional actor Henshall with a cast of amateur (yet remarkably talented) supporting players, Kurtzel imbues his lead with a malevolent gravitational pull that draws us in like a honey trap. John Bunting is the eye of this storm -- a serine, smiling psychopath at the center of a swirling nightmare -- and it’s easy to see, early on, why the fatherless Lucas would be drawn to him as a kind of paternal figure. Bunting is a splash of color in Lucas’ dark world, and even when the outwardly amiable newcomer makes his motivations clear at a lively neighborhood-watch meeting with comments like "you gotta to take it into your own hands," we can forgive the troubled teen for failing to recognize the danger signs that would cause a more rational individual to take pause. Indeed, when we learn a secret about Lucas much later in the film, it becomes quite obvious why his judgment has been so fractured throughout the movie. Despite the character’s minimal dialogue and (intentional) emotional flatness, the talented Pittaway displays a remarkable ability to emote when the situation calls for it, and his reaction upon getting intimately involved in one of Bunting’s crimes is made all the more effective by his subdued performance throughout most of the film. Other standouts among the inexperienced cast include Harris as Lucas’ haunted mother and Aaron Viergever as Bunting’s right-hand man. Viergever, like Pittaway, has precious few lines of dialogue, but he exudes a simmering rage in the background of numerous scenes that lends the picture a constant and unrelenting tension.

Meanwhile, fresh off his success with the critically acclaimed Animal Kingdom, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw lends The Snowtown Murders a sense of disturbing realism that recalls Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for its stark air of intimacy that makes the violence all the more disturbing. His images are perfectly complimented by composer Jed Kurzel (brother of the director and member of the Australian rock outfit the Mess Hall), whose score conjures memories of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, with the spooky plucking of David Eugene Edwards’ banjos gently echoing in the background.

In a cinematic subgenre (the true-crime/serial-killer film) littered with artless, amateur, and shamelessly exploitive titles, Justin Kurzel’s powerful first feature stands apart like a pitch-black stain on a soft-grey shadow for its complex portrayal of vigilantism, mental illness, and the vulnerability of youth. Some movies possess the eerie power to burrow deep into your psyche and nuzzle up against those dark recesses of your conscience where your deepest fears lay dormant, creating a sense of dread so intensely paralyzing that -- at least for a few hours -- it feels like you’re trapped in a waking nightmare. With its droning score, stark cinema verité style, and chilling performances, The Snowtown Murders is just such a film.

-Jason Buchanan


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