The Snowtown Murders
Directed by Justin Kurzel
The Snowtown murders were the serial killings of twelve people between 1992 and 1999 in that small South Australian town and nearby Adelaide. A core group of four men carried them out, led by John Bunting, acknowledged in the movie's postscript as the continent's most prolific serial killer. The crimes' gruesomeness gripped public attention—most of the remains were found in an empty former bank inside acid-filled barrels (the perpetrators unfortunately went with hydrochloric, which mummified instead of dissolved the limbs).
Evidence suggests that Bunting's motivation, as far as these things go, was pretty much garden variety sadistic psychopathology. He targeted pedophiles, but in this he was inconsistent and willing to act on hearsay and lack of any proof. For a while, the film teases this possible sick vigilante superhero role the same way it finds other worthwhile nuances in what could have been a merely grim restaging of real recent horror: by witnessing the action through the experience of James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). Early on, James and his brothers are raped by a neighbor, and mom's new boyfriend-type Bunting appears as a charismatic and comforting presence in the house for both them and their mother. Loudly vocal about the kind of retribution he thinks pedophiles deserve, his coaching of James starts out innocently when he encourages the brothers to smear "fag", written in ice cream, on the offending neighbor's windows. This escalates to deer entrails tossed on the porch, before Bunting's crusade takes far extremer turns.
By telling the story through James, the writer Shaun Grant and first-time director Kurzel attempt to show how a damaged, gullible kid could be slowly baited and brainwashed by a psycho into abetting the most heinous torture and murder. And it's a way to show the drawn-out and banal way in which these activities can escalate and become routine. In this, and in the naturalism-punctuated-by-slow-motion-accents style, the film is heavily indebted to Larry Clark's Bully. Brad Renfro's dense pushover and Nick Stahl's shrimpy ringleader are doubled here. As Bunting, Daniel Henshall is shortish and doughy with a jovial dad beard—the "charisma" emanates from his seizing stare and his predatory use of flattery and manipulation.
Grant and Kurzel's efforts to locate sociological motivations amidst the barrels of gore might be admirable, but they never touch the philosophical-horror insights of something like The Vanishing (1988). The problem might be that, as in Van Sant's Elephant, the central crimes are so horrible that any adhered life lessons feel pat. Since he is the filmmakers' only hope of non-exploitation, James Vlassakis gets over-humanized, weeping while helplessly watching his cohorts lead the killing way. Without this potential innocent, The Snowtown Murders would be merely an artfully unpleasant dramatization of horrible real things.
Opens March 2 at IFC Center