Movie Review: Snowtown (2011, Dir. Justin Kurzel)

Snowtown is based on the true story of Australia’s bodies in barrels murders, and the man who committed them to become the nation’s most infamous serial killer. This is the first feature film from director Justin Kurzel, whose short film Blue Tongue screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Snowtown follows Jamie, a 16 year old who has been living with his three brothers and single mother in a depraved world of abuse and molestation. When his mother introduces John Bunting into their lives, life appears to be turning around for Jamie, but things are not what they seem. Soon he becomes wrapped up in Bunting’s twisted reality, assisting him in atrocious crimes. I’m going to warn you right now, you will not smile once during this film, but if you take the time to view it, you will be rewarded with an unusual and captivating work of cinematic art.

Snowtown’s style is bleak and organic, with very little dialogue. More than half the words spoken in the film are uttered by the John Bunting, the charismatic serial murderer. Although it is a serial killer story, it bears very little resemblance to any other films of that genre. What Kurzel has crafted from this true tale is a shocking work of art, but it seems like there is a lot of room for growth in his storytelling.

Despite being so well made, Snowtown is a disaster as a narrative. Characters appear and disappear out of no where, with no introduction and almost entirely without explanation as to where they came from or how they relate to anything in the film. With such little information, it becomes extremely difficult to follow what’s going on, who is who, and who knows what. I would forgive it if I felt the film wasn’t relying on the audience to have some inkling of what was occurring in the story and who the individual characters were. I really do think the filmmaker intended to communicate the story, and just failed to do so. If I wasn’t grasping for the information I felt I needed to really engage in the narrative, I would have found myself completely immersed in the film. Maybe an Australian audience would be more familiar with the true story of the country’s worst serial killer, but as a viewer without that background, I was utterly lost.

Yet, even while confusing me, I never lost my patience with Snowtown; it’s utterly beautiful to look at. In the muted tones that made up the film’s color pallet, certain shots burn into your eyes. The horizon slices the image in two while green landscape shoots past, Jamie sits at the bottom of a dirt pit framed by light, a young boy in a dress stands high, hoisting bricks above his head. It’s gorgeous and bleak and so unsettling.

In fact, this is where the strength of Snowtown really lies. Regardless of how little information I had, all of the film’s technical qualities delivered such a strong, unsettling emotional response that I feel the film could have functioned on even less of a narrative. From the opening credits until the moment the lights came up, I was on the edge of my seat. The sound design of the film turned even the most innocuous moments unbearably tense. The credits opened to the loud percussion reminiscent of a racing heartbeat; scenes of the characters silently eating breakfast were laced with a faint yet utterly disturbing sounds of food squelching, noodles sticking together and mouths sloppily chewing. And during perhaps the most visually graphic scene of the film, where the killer dismembers dead kangaroos on camera, I found myself more reviled by the sounds of the blade sticking in the animals neck than the sight of it being decapitated.

Snowtown is a disturbingly grim affair, and a technical masterpiece. A remarkable first film from director Justin Kurzel, it is an intelligent, challenging, and gruesome film that’s not for the faint of heart. It’s beautiful photography stands in stark contrast to the highly disturbing content of the film, and despite struggling to keep up with the narrative, it’s the kind of movie I want to encourage people to seek out.

Anyhow, I’m very curious to see how an American audience is going to react to a serial killer film of this caliber. So go see it, and let me know what you think.

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