Film Review: The Snowtown Murders

Though many will be put off by the elliptical style of this clammy, feral drama about Australia’s most infamous serial killer, Daniel Henshall’s jaw-droppingly malevolent performance will reward all those who seek it out.

For a film about John Bunting, one of the most infamous serial killers in Australia’s history, The Snowtown Murders comes at its subject stealthily and almost wholly without sensationalism. Creating a slow-burning portrait of its depressed South Australian suburban milieu and the layers upon layers of dysfunction found therein, Justin Kurzel’s assured feature debut approaches its themes with care. Even when the story shifts more towards Bunting’s murderous exploits, the tone remains even. It’s as though what’s happening is no surprise at all, just the natural outgrowth of this toxic brew of poverty, rage and sickening abuse.

Well before Bunting enters the picture, Kurzel (using a baggy script by Shaun Grant that’s heavily based on two nonfiction accounts) has fully immersed viewers in the raggedly knockabout life of single mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris, appropriately depressive). She’s raising her three boys in a sketchy neighborhood with little money and an apparent inability to see when they’re being victimized. This becomes obvious early on, when we witness all three of them being photographed in their underwear by Elizabeth’s boyfriend. (A quietly harrowing scene shows him sitting down naked at the kitchen table after whatever abuse he’s put the boys through, and calmly smoking a cigarette as though nothing has happened.)

The film focuses in on the oldest of the boys, teenage Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), whose preternaturally silent and serene composure belies the torture he’s endured—later developments illustrate other horrid abuses at the hands of a family member. He’s the target of much too much attention when Bunting (Daniel Henshall) shows up as Elizabeth’s bearded, cheery new amour. A seemingly cherubic presence who shines a light into the Harveys’ downcast, narcotized existence, Bunting becomes both the dad they don’t ever seem to have had and the fun ringleader they need.

Kurzel peels back the veneer on Bunting’s charm with agonizing gradualism, a task made all that easier by Henshall’s riveting and revelatory work. His play with the boys becomes tinged with anger—a kindly scene of him buying ice-cream cones takes a different turn when he instructs them to use it to write angry messages on the windows of their abuser. Then Elizabeth’s kitchen table is turned into an unofficial neighborhood meeting center where Bunting, alternately slyly manipulative and viciously bullying, churns up opinions on what Inquisition-like punishments should be meted out to child abusers. This pivots from talk to action all too smoothly, with the vigilante passions of Bunting and some quiet compatriots quickly redirected into sheer homicidal homophobia. Jamie hovers on the periphery, shell-shocked by trauma and unable to peel himself away. Staggering outside as a murder is being committed, he sits on the porch, looking at children riding their bikes, blithely unaware of the horror occurring just feet away.

The style of The Snowtown Murders is elliptical in the extreme, with relationships and motivations left unexplained and plenty of details only barely sketched in, frustrating those looking here for any kind of true-crime drama. But Henshall’s career-making performance, soft-eyed yet cold-hearted, brings a tight focus to every scene he’s in. Kurzel shoots everything in a sickly blue pallor that brings a clammy unease to even the most innocuous scenes. The backdrops of skuzzy backyards and graffiti-splattered walls combine with most of the characters’ depressive rootlessness to create the perfect kind of despairing atmosphere where a charismatic brute like Henshall’s Bunting could run wild.
A star is born, darkly.