Snowtown possesses a constant bleak and dreary atmosphere that uniquely cloaks the characters that inhabit the film. Although the film tells the true story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer, it’s a film less about the how and why of the killings, and more about the atmospheric traits that first-time director Justin Kurzel employs throughout. The world of Snowtown has a very distinct feel, as the characters of this rundown Australian town rely way too much on cigarettes and TV to even have the slightest clue of what may be taking place behind the closed doors in their town. It’s an area plagued with sexual acts, as Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), the film’s protagonist, and his two younger brothers are introduced as victims of pedophilia by their mother’s boyfriend as the film opens. Jamie’s stoic nature is something to behold, as the actor captures the feeling of being caught in an inescapable trance of helplessness.
The arrival of John Bunting, (Daniel Henshall) Jamie’s mom’s new boyfriend, provides Jamie and his brothers with a sense of comfort as John immediately thrusts himself into the father figure role. Presenting himself as both nurturer and provider, John comes across as a decent guy, until he and his crowd of self-appointed neighborhood watchmen begin to lead Jamie down a path of torture and murder. John’s intention of being a “good example” for the boys and the neighborhood is just a facade, a manipulative method that provides him with power and places fear in anyone that defies him. There is a certain unknowing quality presented in the film’s first act as little is made known to the audience outside of a few minuscule details revolving around the characters and their relations to one another. The film possesses an elusive narrative framework that may leave the viewer sporadically detached as Kurzel makes it clear from the onset that Snowtown won’t echo the traits and qualities of a standard procedural. There’s an enthralling quality to the film’s opening, as a window of unpredictability transitions into a series of vague assumptions on what we’re seeing and how it will all play out. Somehow, the slow burn sensibility that Snowtown possesses works in its favor, before the film eventually starts to wallow in its inevitable pursuit of dread.
In an awkwardly surprising turn of events, Snowtown becomes less interesting as soon as the murders start taking place. The sense of fear coupled with this portrait of a disenfranchised society begins to shrink. In a way, Snowtown is caught up in a quandary of identity. It has to show the severity of these murders to pack a punch, but feels less effective in doing so. Snowtown is in part at least mildly affecting, as it’s not without its achievements. Daniel Henshall’s performance is one of genuine horror, as he brilliantly mixes charm with a daunting physical presence that feels authentic throughout. Bunting is able to crush a family under the weight of his own insanity, as he thoroughly disrupts the psyche of Jamie to a point of no return. While Henshall’s actions are routinely foreseeable, there’s really no concrete insight into his motives, and this is where Snowtown begins to lose some merit. The film is so relentlessly grim, as it chooses to sidestep any real intuition into the plight of Bunting, he’s simply presented as a manipulative psychopathic killer. The film follows the same trajectory as Animal Kingdom, another Australian crime film depicting a violent world with a passive protagonist. While Australia seems to be going through a new wave of filmmaking, films like Animal Kingdom and Snowtown should benefit, but they all seem too familiar and alike as to leave the viewer without any lasting impact. While both are modest feats in terms of linear and non-linear storytelling, I feel like I’ve met my quota (at least for now) in regards to “Aussie misery.”