FEATURE: Shocktober - Snowtown

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here



There are some films that are swiftly described as an experience rather than something to be enjoyed, usually on particularly harrowing topics that don't often get explored in movies designed for entertainment. Snowtown, also known as The Snowtown Murders, is one of these experiences, a brutal and unflinching look at the story behind Australia's worst serial killer, John Bunting, and those he influenced and coerced into aiding him. Directed by Justin Kurzel, the film centres on James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) and the circumstances that brought him into contact with Bunting (Daniel Henshall).

Rather than build something sensationalist out of a series of horrific murders, Kurzel opts for a pared back, clinical approach that examines these circumstances rather than simply presents them. The neighbourhood in which Jamie and his family reside is slowly decaying and evidence of poverty abounds. It allows for criminal activity, specifically the sexual abuse of children, to run rife and when their mother Elizabeth leaves her three sons with a neighbour, the problem is brought into their home. When Elizabeth discovers what has happened, the situation brings someone else into their home, the charismatic Bunting, who promises to rid them of their neighbour. He soon does so, coercing the boys into helping him terrorise the man until he leaves. In various meetings held in Elizabeth's home, Bunting and his associates adopt this vigilante role to plug the gaps left by an apparently inept justice system.

The corruption of the domestic space and familial relationships is something that continues throughout much of the film. Bunting's presence in amongst this failing little world is jarring; everyone else is fairly solemn whilst Bunting cracks jokes and spends a large amount of his time grinning. Henshall's performance gives him an alluring charisma in amidst this greyness and it's easy to understand why Jamie falls quickly under his influence. Bunting becomes the older brother/father figure that Jamie is clearly lacking and Pittaway layers the initial naivety with a sense of awe. This is someone who actually talks to him and understands what he's going through. It makes the moments in which Jamie's innocence is shattered harder to bear and it is harder still to accept his complicity in the later events.

The film is unflinching in its presentation of the sexual abuse and violence that it examines, made all the more unsettling by the calmness with which it is presented. These domestic settings allow for an extraordinary banality to define these proceedings which makes everything all the more unsettling. Sometimes, just the aftermath is shown, like a lengthy take of a bloodstained bathtub, followed by an answer-phone message clearly recored under duress as the victim tells their loved one that they've gone away.  In other moments, scenes of sexual abuse are scored by a cricket commentary. This connection between events of horrific violence and the everyday sounds of existence make for a disturbing pairing.

At all times, you are reminded of the truth of the situation, that these crimes occurred in an ordinary neighbourhood and in people's homes. Even in films that claim to be based on a true story, there is always a sense of artifice. This underlying knowledge that the world you are watching has been created from a page and not from reality allows for a sense of separation from the events that you are watching unfold. With Snowtown, there is no such comfort. The film is largely naturalistic, presented coldly and without prior judgement and crucially, without sensationalism.

Snowtown is, without doubt, one of the most brutal and uncompromising films I have seen and the first time this month where I've felt completely broken by the events I had just witnessed. In truth, there were moments when I didn't think I could actually make it to the end of the film, but, having done so, Snowtown is an immensely powerful experience.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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