How do you get American audiences to watch an independent import from Australia? The answer is true crime. From Chopper to Animal Kingdom, we like it best when Australia's grimy underclass points weapons at each other and the credit crawl at the end lets us know which prison everybody's in today.
In 1999, police in Snowtown, Australia found the remains of multiple dismembered bodies in acid-filled barrels sitting in an abandoned bank. The bodies were put there by John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), the "regular Joe" who would become known as Australia's most notorious serial killer. Bunting's motive, it seems, was to rid his impoverished neighborhood, vigilante-style, of as many pedophiles, drug addicts and other undesirables as possible. He enlisted friends and, unsurprisingly, his own girlfriend's easily manipulated teenage son Jamie (Lucas Pittaway).
Sitting around a kitchen table holding court with neighbors, John acts as a sort of block mayor, dictating what should be done to the local degenerates and whipping up a beer-fueled consensus. His half-drunk pals agree that the wrongdoers should be skinned alive, but they have no idea that he really means it. John recruits helpers, including Jamie, who by this point has already been shown to be the victim of repeated rape at the hands of his hulking older brother, and quietly sets about his cold-blooded plan.
It's a grim, ugly story featuring no happy ending and a kill-yourself-now atmosphere, with director Justin Kurzel punctuating his long stretches of banal, suburban, poverty-based malaise with extended sequences of torture and dismemberment. In other words, it's the kind of movie you admire for its construction, its performances (save for Henshall, most of them come from non-professional actors) or its sense of authenticity, but it's not something you sit down with for entertainment's sake. And you really don't watch it if you aren't already at least a little informed about this particular case -- plot details are often submerged in atmosphere here, rather than explicitly spelled out -- or, most importantly, if you're not already skilled at deciphering lazily mumbled Aussie dialects and slang. You'll get it from the context eventually, but entire scenes roll by where not a single garbled word makes sense.
And the point, if you do proceed? Evil is mundane. But you knew that already. We have serial killers here, too, and they usually turn out to be church deacons, children's party rent-a-clowns and Boy Scout troop leaders. That's why learning that the quiet guy down the street is keeping a bin full of decapitated heads in a storage unit is horrible, but never surprising.
Meanwhile, if it's in-depth reporting your looking for, just read the book The Snowtown Murders. It won't make sense of evil, but at least you'll know who's who and what they said to one another.