In attempting to portray serial killers, both real and imaginary, on screen, filmmakers have incorporated a wide variety of methodologies. While one might assume that films about serial killers are, by definition, horror films (and on one level they are), much depends on how the director chooses to frame a difficult subject.
Justin Kurzel makes his feature-length debut with Snowtown, a depiction of real-life Australian serial killer John Bunting who, along with accomplices, killed 12 people in Snowtown (north of Adelaide) in the 1990s. Kurzel has made a grim thriller which deals with its horrific subject matter in a generally intelligent and sophisticated manner.
The film’s depiction of Snowtown itself is chilling. This is a deprived, poverty stricken community, apparently neglected by the authorities and spiralling out of control. Every other person, it seems, has something to hide, and sexual predators – many of whom target minors – plague the streets.
How accurately this Australian town is presented in the film I cannot say, but Kurzel does not attempt to explain how the area came to be so desperate, and nor does he hide from its grim reality. It doesn’t feel like the bleakness of the setting is being sensationalised, however, and this is because although the film’s subject is the now infamous ‘Snowtown murders’, its protagonist is not Bunting himself but one of his soon-to-be-accomplices, James Vlassakis. He is played convincingly by newcomer Lucas Pittaway – indeed, most of the cast are first time performers.
Kurzel spends some time establishing James’ day-to-day life before Bunting ever comes into the frame, and during this period the foundations are laid for a transformation that is never justified, but is contextualised by, early events. James lives with his brothers under the care of his single mother (Louise Harris) and her boyfriend. We quickly ascertain that all is not well in the household, and initially the appearance of charismatic John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) into this setup seems to provide a reprieve. Bunting chairs ragtag community meetings in which a gathering of locals vent their hatred and fears about the society around them, mainly directed at paedophiles. James is encouraged to attend these meetings, and quickly forms an eerie familial bond with Bunting, whom we as the audience know is carefully preying on James’ insecurity and repressed anger, gently moulding him into something he should never become. This relationship – and, crucially, James’ transformation – convinces, and the film is all the more unsettling for it.
Bunting, unlike the others at the meetings, is unsatisfied with simply venting through words. He is prepared to take matters into his own hands, as James eventually learns. We watch as he is unwittingly drawn into Bunting’s band of killers, until through circumstance it is too late to redeem his grieving soul. Pittaway’s performance as James is strong enough to generate considerable sympathy – how close his character is to the real man is difficult to say, but it works for the purposes of constructing a believable drama.
In general, Kurzel is content for the relationship between Bunting and Vlassakis to carry the film, and it works. Vlassakis may come across as sympathetic to us, but Bunting does not. Charismatic, yes, but not sympathetic. We come to understand that his actions may not be as principled as he claims – perhaps, on a level, he simply enjoys killing. There is also significant suggestion made in the film (in particular through a couple of creepy, suggestive scenes) that he is little more than a hypocrite. When Kurzel briefly allows the film to move into more graphic territory during one late scene, he seems to compromise his well-established tone a little, but the outcome of the scene is significant and he obviously felt it couldn’t be done any other way.
Dotted with little flashes of directorial flair, Snowtown is a well-made, considered film. When the photography occasionally allows us to move outside the titular community, we are grateful for the open space and an expansion of the colour palette. The fact that the film loses its way a little in the final third isn’t enough to derail the hard work that has come before. Its grimly realistic style may be off-putting to some viewers, but this is a convincing and effective portrayal of a serial killer.