Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Snowtown

Dir. Justin Kurzel
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 120mins

Revelling in its lower class miserabilism like a pig in shit, Justin Kurzel’s debut feature Snowtown - a dramatisation of the events surrounding the famed “bodies in the barrels” murders - is a dark, dank, depressing experience that does nothing but shove an endless parade of grotesquery in the audience’s face. Paedophilia, animal cruelty, incest, rape, incest rape, drug abuse, torture, homophobia, gruesome murder and, to top it all off, screaming bogans screaming at each other about screaming and stuff. Wanna feel dirty? See Snowtown!

Set in the years between 1992 and 1999, Snowtown plays out like a filmed nightmare. Director Kurzel along with his screenwriter Shaun Grant, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, editor Veronika Jenet, sound design by Frank Lipson and a startling original score by Jed Kurzel, help create an ominous and oppressive atmosphere that suits the suburban fringe setting. Unfortunate thing is, people don’t actually like nightmares, do they? People wake up from them and try to shake the feelings that come as a result of them. Yes, Snowtown is a strikingly made picture, but that doesn’t stop it from being a numbing, repulsive experience.

Australia has been making this grungy, kitchen sink style of film for yonks. I don’t have a problem with them if they do something unique with it, but the makers fail to do so here. Snowtown’s obvious cousin is the far superior Rowan Woods drama The Boys, which was electric and so inspirational 15 years ago, but the subgenre of suburban bogans being miserable and/or unpleasant is overflowing with titles: West, Little Fish, Em4Jay, Last Ride, Candy, The Horseman, Romper Stomper, Blessed Bad Boy Bubby, Men’s Group, Mallboy, Praise, Head On, Tom White, Suburban Mayhem and Somersault all tread similar ground, right on through to obvious genre interpretations of Wolf Creek and The Loved Ones. It even traverses similar ground to iconic Aussie flick Wake in Fright, which investigated the often dangerous ways “mateship” can form amongst men. Some of these movies are indeed incredible, powerful pieces of cinema that have something to say about the ugly acts found within them. Others are not, and Snowtown belongs in the latter camp with them.

There isn’t anything fresh here; nothing being said is particularly revelatory. The cult-like charm that the murderous group’s leader, John Bunting, holds over his accomplices is never explained nor questioned. Kurzel has bled all the urgency out of this horrifying series of events by preferring to spend his time crafting painterly representations of gruesome acts in slow-motion. The lighting is delicately handled, the score is craftily inserted and the bogan gothic art direction is suffocating, but then when it’s all over and done with what have we learnt? That a group of bad men did some horrible stuff and then they got caught. Brief scenes showing Bunting’s methods of manipulation are lost amongst the repetitious scenes of people fighting and shouting in dingy kitchens lined with unwashed pots. The admittedly creepy storytelling device of allowing a murder to be represented by the victim’s own farewell tape recording is eventually muddled by its sporadic use.

All of this and Kurzel isn’t even particularly interested in the actual murders. By the time we finally see the infamous bank vault of Snowtown, the terror that it encapsulates has been all but castrated by the parade of vile acts that come before it. When the easily manipulated Jamie Vlassakis, who eventually went on to become the star witness in the court cases that followed, is seen sitting alongside the barrels that Australians have read about and seen in crime television programs they have been overshadowed by Kurzel’s unrelenting freak show of societal horrors.

The cast is filled with mostly newcomers and nonactors. Daniel Henshall is suitably malevolent as John Bunting, the killing group’s dictator, but Lucas Pittaway is not much more than a blank slate as the easily corruptible Jamie. For me it was Louise Harris, discovered in a supermarket by Kurzel, that gives the film’s best performance as Jamie’s mother Elizabeth Harvey. Much like Lynette Curran in The Boys, Noni Hazelhurst in Little Fish or Linda Cropper in Blackrock and Teesh & Trude, she does the downtrodden single suburban mother routine as if she knows it like the back of her hand. The film suffers greatly from her absence in the later half of the movie, as Jamie falls deeper under Bunting’s spell and Kurzel figures we don’t do much care about Elizabeth’s own bad decision. Unfortunately, nobody can wring a true filmmaking performance out of the threadbare screenplay, especially amidst all of Kurzel’s style stuffing.

There’s no denying that Snowtown is one of the most divisive local films of the year and I guess there’s something in that, but the Australian film industry only needs so many Alkinos Tsilimidos’ and Ana Kokkinos’, okay? D+


Mel said...

I agree with the general sense of your criticisms but the abject quality of Snowtown seems to have annoyed you much more than me.

For me Snowtown wasn't as bad a film as you reckon, but nor is it the utter masterpiece that others have anointed it as. It's atmospheric, and I think it does offer insights into how Jamie was groomed by Bunting. It's certainly nowhere near as bad as Kokkinos's Blessed, which was embarrassing in its bathetic vision of how 'the poors' live.

However as you say, the ending packs none of the emotional punch you'd expect from a film named after such an infamous site.

Glenn Dunks said...

I guess I'm just sick of the handsomely made, depressingly grim Aussie film. I could've copied and pasted my Last Ride review and just replaced all the names, really.

See, I can see there was some effort put into to showing the way Bunting was "grooming" (as you say) Jamie, but it, like almost everything else in the film, was just a vague representation of it before disappearing up its own arse for more slow-mo moody bullshit. Yawn.

Blessed was ridiculous, yes. I don't think Ana Kokkinos has ever left her privileged suburbs to know a thing about the lower class.

Janine said...

Hmm, I don't know...I'm not a movie reviewer so have seen less films to compare it to..but I really liked it!

I mean, when I say like, I was insanely disturbed and haven't slept for the past three nights. I also had to open my bag half way through the film in case I was sick.

However I thought it was gritty and real and moving. And I like films that make me FEEL.

Just my two cents :)

Maimed Hamster said...

At some points this film is shot like a film, but most of the time it is just this apparent artistic overuse of handheld mocumentry style that does nothing but make it look cheap.

This film contains very few significant moments. 80% of it is a barrage of useless information.

If you had no idea about the Snowtown murders, you would hardly be the wiser having watched Snowtown. What a waste of a story to be told.