The Snowtown Murders

The Snowtown Murders (aka Snowtown) inevitably draws comparisons to another brutal and disturbing Australian crime movie, Animal Kingdom, with which it shares some general plot elements and stylistic moves (both films were shot by Adam Arkapaw). But where Animal Kingdom shows one young man's struggle to stay innocent in a family of thieves and murderers, Snowtown depicts the power of a small-time messiah to employ hatred as an excuse for torture and murder. Both films focus their narrative on a quiet (eventually traumatized) adolescent surrounded by monsters, but Animal Kingdom, for all its virtues, is primarily a drama of demons and angels fighting for a soul, whereas Snowtown is less allegorical, less schematic, and more deeply disturbing. (A more meaningful comparison than with Animal Kingdom would be with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.)

Though in some ways Snowtown is the story of how Jamie Vlassakis goes from being an apparently gentle and unassuming teenager to a participant in multiple murders, fundamentally the character is a conduit through which we get to know John Bunting, a charismatic, ebullient fellow who thinks all homosexuals are pedophiles and all pedophiles deserve to be tortured and killed. He happily expounds on his ideas to anyone who will listen, but only a few know how seriously he believes in what he says.

Jamie Vlassakis and John Bunting are real people, and Snowtown is closely based on actual crimes that occurred in South Australia from 1992 to 1999. Snowtown sits north of a Adelaide, and the crimes became associated with it because the murderers, who didn't live in the town, ended up storing the bodies there in barrels of hydrochloric acid hidden in a disused bank vault. Viewers of the film who know at least a rough outline of the actual story may go in expecting a dramatization of the events or a police procedural, perhaps an upscale version of the Discovery Channel's vulgarly ghoulish documentary.

Such expectations would be disappointed, though — more than disappointed: frustrated. We spend at least the first half hour of the film with little or no knowledge of quite who the characters are: names only come up now and then, people appear and disappear in Jamie's life. And that's clearly the point. Looking at the shooting script, we can see that some of this information existed in Shaun Grant's screenplay, but was either not shot or was removed in editing. As viewers (particularly as first-time viewers), we are only slowly given the information we need to sort out who is who and what their feelings, desires, or motives are, if we are given that information at all. Even in the second half of the film, where the story and characters have become clearer, numerous details are elided or hidden in hints. Bunting committed plenty of murders that Jamie Vlassakis was only vaguely aware of, or didn't know about at all, but the film doesn't simply keep us within his realm of knowledge (though often it does do that) — instead, it evokes his sense of confusion by denying us information easily known to the characters. More than that, it creates a sense of a continuous present by scrupulously avoiding any explication of the characters' pasts. We cannot know who people are in this film except through their immediate self-presentation and actions. We see their clothes, their facial expressions, their movements. We hear fragments of their conversations. Eventually, we see them as perpetrators or victims of torture and murder.

Before I get to some of the elements that make Snowtown, for me, a rare and extraordinary (if disturbing and painful) experience, I have to say that every element of this film is put together with care, attention, and masterful confidence. That this is so is especially remarkable in that it is director Justin Kurzel's first feature. Good directors need good collaborators, and Kurzel benefited from the experience of two key collaborators: Arkapaw as cinematographer and editor Veronika Jenet, who edited Jane Campion's first movies, among others. Additionally, Kurzel has a perfect cast. The role of Jamie is thankless in that it is mostly passive, requiring an actor whose face and eyes can convey the emotions behind such passivity. Lucas Pittaway does that and more; his performance is a model of how much can be shown with stillness and silence.

But the most impressive role is that of Daniel Henshall as John Bunting. Inevitably, this role would be the one in the movie to attract attention, because it is the energetic heart of the story. Such roles are especially tricky, though, because they can easily become caricatures. (See, for instance, the dramatizations in the Discovery documentary mentioned above.) For the movie to work, we need to see Bunting's charisma, we need to be at least a little bit drawn to him ourselves. He needs to be interesting and engaging, but he also needs to be able to be believeably terrifying as well. I cannot imagine anyone achieving this better than Henshall did.

What makes Snowtown so special, so truly extraordinary, is the way it conveys its meaning and purpose. It does so through various techniques, but especially through its relationship to the audience. Our position as viewers of this movie is unequivocal: until the last moment, we are made into voyeurs. This is a perfectly common technique — filmmakers have been doing it for ages (Hitchcock specialized in it) — but Snowtown is especially interesting because early in the film our viewership is directly equated with a pornographer's gaze, then the majority of the film sets us up to see events through Jamie's eyes and to sympathize with his growing fear, confusion, anger, and sense of being trapped; and finally at the end, we are separated from Jamie, who literally closes the door on our voyeurism before the final murder and aligns himself with the murderers rather than us.

I could go on at considerable length about the role of observation and voyeurism in Snowtown, from its first shot out a car window to the excruciating, unflinching scene of torture that became the first of the crimes Jamie was eventually convicted of to the brilliant final shot where we are denied the sadistic satisfaction of seeing the last death (one that, in reality, was among the most gruesome, and included cannibalism) — but I think I'll save that for something that's not a blog post. Instead, I'll just point to the scene I alluded to above, where the camera making the movie we are watching is equated with the camera of Jefferey Payne, who takes pictures of the younger boys in their underwear and of Jamie naked. For a moment, I thought I was watching a mug shot being made: the flat background, the emotionless face, the matter-of-fact voice offscreen saying, "Turn to your side." Within seconds, though, I knew it was something else. For one minute, we are put in the position of viewing something intended by Jefferey Payne to be soft-core child porn. And we're only seven minutes into the movie.

Thus, Snowtown is, among other things, an attack on the viewer's most prurient desires, the sadistic/masochistic voyeurism that is one of the central engines of many movies' pleasures: we seek the exquisite masochism of suspense and the joyful sadism of watching characters come to harm. Such joys are not simply denied us in Snowtown — they are remorselessly revealed, so that while the movie's surface style is that of a thousand other small-budget films that fetishize a verité realism, its method is basically Brechtian, or, more accurately, Haneke-ian. (Here's an idea for a mini-festival of movies: Peeping TomThe Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Benny's Video, Snowtown.) Early on, we are implicated with the objectifying, lascivious gaze of the pornographer; then we are put through the journey of the victimized bystander forced (but how forced?) to join in the violence; finally, we are saved from our own desire to see yet more pain and suffering. While Jamie cannot save himself, he can save us.

This is not all that Snowtown is up to, however. It is also a methodical analysis of the impulse toward annihilation that is inherent in the enforcement of normativity. John Bunting's paranoia about pedophilia, his conflation of pedophilia and homosexuality, and the arrogant assertion of his own normality fuels his charisma and his crimes. In his mind, the world exists in two groups: normal people such as himself, and abnormal people who are not just an annoyance, but a scourge — something to be exterminated. He portrays himself as a vigilante, someone doing what the police are unwilling or unable to do. He seizes on instances of apparent injustice (e.g. Jefferey Payne released on bail) to gain converts to his cause, and he justifies his bloodlust with the language of righteousness. Even he, deluded as he is, eventually realizes he's not doing a very good job of identifying pedophiles and homosexuals, and so his later justifications are those of simple Social Darwinism.

Snowtown becomes, then, a dramatization of eliminationist rhetoric transforming into (and excusing) eliminationist violence. This is where our implication as viewers becomes important. We may sympathize with the complaints of the people sitting around the kitchen table in Snowtown, talking about the unfair application of laws, the criminals who go free, the innocents who are wronged. Who doesn't have at least a little bit of the vigilante in them — who doesn't wish, if not for Charles Bronson's sort of deaths, at least the kind doled out by Dexter? Surely, we're all nice, tolerant, at-least-vaguely-liberal people (educated, higher class) who would never say the sorts of things some of those folks around the table say ... but how different from them are we, really, in the deepest wishes of our darkest hearts?

Can we face the implications of our basest desires and paranoias, can we stomach our own bravado? That's the question at the core of Snowtown. By the time Jamie is raped by his older brother, we have some sympathy for him and already some annoyance with the brother, if not outright hatred. The rape is humiliating, painful, traumatic. We may want that brother to die. Or we may think we do. His torture is the most gruesome in the movie, and among the most heartwrenching and painful I have ever seen in any film — far worse than more gory slasher movies, because it lingers in long takes, because the camera brings us in close so that we see not only a toenail pulled off and hair slimy with blood, but also the joy in John Bunting's eyes — and then we remember the desire we once had for the brother to be punished and now we are seeing the punishment and it is ghastly and all we want in the world, if we are not complete sadists ourselves, is for it to stop. (It's all Jamie wants, too. And so he stops it.)

The movie has hope for us in the end. Jamie is lost, but we might not be.

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