The Snowtown Murders Movie Review: The Killer is the Step-Dad Beside Me

And I thought River's Edge was frightening.
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The Snowtown Murders is the most sickening movie I have ever seen, which was undoubtedly director Justin Kurzel's intention. The film opens with young Jaime Vlassakis's (Luca Pittaway) soliloquy, which begins; "I keep having this dream..." and goes into a story that has nothing, and yet everything to do with the film. We are drawn into an immediate identification with the types of alienation, fear, and discomfort so common to adolescents. It even seems a little heavy-handed, because the fears of kids at that age are so common.

Jaime and his brothers live with their single mother in an area most would describe as low-rent. Here in the United States, the epithet is "white trash." Nobody works, and the housing is subsidized by the government. The homes are completely run-down, and most everyone is stoned on one substance or another most of the time. Even with the mother around, the kids are raising themselves. 

The Snowtown Murders' first 30 minutes presents an Australian version of this lifestyle. It is almost comfortable, because these are people that we all know, or have seen, in one way or another. I personally live about three miles from an area that looks nearly identical to the area Jaime's family lives in.

Jamie's mother's has a friend named John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who brings his low-life friends into the fold. It certainly seems par for the course. This may sound judgmental - but it is absolutely true that many people at the bottom of the economic spectrum are drifters, and crash on any available couch for a few days or weeks or whatever. 

snowtownSo far so good, and the film is looking like a pseudo-documentary of life in a lower class suburb of Australia. That impression ends about 30 minutes into the picture with Jaime's rape by his older brother. Afterwards, Jaime asks to stay overnight at Bunting's house, which seems perfectly reasonable given what had previously happened at home. John Bunting also talks Jaime into joining him in getting his head shaved - an indicator of the first step towards the madness Jamie will soon find himself becoming a part of.

The overnighter introduces Jaime to the shocking reality of the secret life Bunting lives. Once Jaime has been "groomed," he is introduced to John's true passion as a serial killer. The victims are "friends" of the group, and Bunting's twist is unlike almost all serial killers we ever hear about. His thing is to make the killings a bonding ritual. Pick a target, then murder him with a group of buddies seems to be the kick.  

Calling this the most sickening film I have ever seen is not meant as some sort of shocking opening statement. It is a fact. The tortuous deaths that follow are not in any way the most horrific scenes ever shot on celluloid. But there is a huge difference between watching something like Saw, and this. Whether consciously of not, we always know that Saw is fiction. 

There are two reasons that The Snowtown Murders still affects me as strongly as it does. One is the fact that these events actually happened. I have never seen a "true crime" picture like this before, and I never want to again. My second reason is the utter mundane quality to the majority of the film. This is not a gore film, although there are plenty of ugly scenes. The torture of the victims, and the pleasure Bunting got out of them actually take up maybe 15 minutes of the film's 120 minute running time.

What takes it so far into the realm of the truly disturbing is all of the boring, day-to-day life scenes we see. These people sit around all day watching soap operas and the like, while taking the occasional bong hit, or drinking some beers. The sequence showing the extended family making a grand effort to celebrate Jaime's younger brother's eight-year birthday, and then what occurs afterwards is something I will never forget, as much as I wish I could.

The group all have a nice dinner together, at home - complete with birthday cake. Then it is off to the ice-skating rink, for some wholesome fun. This is all so ordinary. One just feels for this "down on their luck" family, making the best of their limited resources to make a little boy's birthday a little bit special. Then Jaime goes over to John's, and is shown the bodies of his former friends. These are people who had disappeared, but had actually left telephone messages to their families saying that they could not live the way they had been before, and were leaving for good.

We see how these recordings were made. Handcuffed to the pipes of an old tub, and with toenails being torn off one by one, these men would - and did say whatever they were told to say into a tape recorder. These horrible recordings were then used via telephone answering machine to explain their sudden departure. Nobody even questioned it. 

After seeing this first-hand, Jaime is very obviously and justifiably afraid for  his and his family's lives. There is one point where he even calls the police, but is caught by Bunting. It looks as if his life is over at this point, but no - it seems Bunting wants him as involved as possible.

I am going to stop here, because I think I have given enough of the story for potential viewers to know what they are getting into. The press release mentions the fact that this whole event was in many ways hidden from the outside world. The exposure Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or the Green River Killer's horrible crimes were international news, but the mid-nineties Snowtown murders received relatively little attention in comparison.

This story needed to be told, whether the authorities wanted it publicized or not. I know that is what Justin Kurzel intended, and he succeeded better in capturing the true horror of these events more than what even he probably imagined possible. It does not surprise me that Snowtown won the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, among other accolades. 

I am not sure if this is a compliment, or a warning. But I cannot think of a film that I have ever seen that is more disturbing than The Snowtown Murders.

The Snowtown Murders will be released theatrically in NYC on March 2, 2012 with a national rollout to follow.

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