The Australia of my mind used to be a faraway place rich with the Great Barrier Reef, the Sydney Opera House, and kangaroos. Snowtown takes those kangaroos, chops them into pieces, gets them good and bloody, and throws them on a pedophile's front porch. Based on a true story of Australian serial killer John Bunting and his band of not-so-merry murderers in Snowtown, South Australia, it provides a deeply upsetting retelling of the events that until recently were kept under court-ordered supression. Although it builds quiet, thick suspense and lacks the bravado and sensationalism of most films of the genre, that doesn't always work to its advantage.
At first the movie plods along, showing you how economic and social hardship can weigh down any family so much they end up sleepwalking through life--eating, watching TV, sleeping, getting up to do it all over again. When Elizabeth Harvey's (Louise Harris) three boys are discovered to be the victims of sexual abuse by a neighbor, the town erupts. All of a sudden, everyone on the block is sitting around kitchen tables together discussing in gory detail how they are going to dole out vigilante justice. Australians do not mess around. There's one person who seems to be getting noticeable satisfaction out of egging everyone on, and that's John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). He worms his way into the lives of Elizabeth's family (like psychopaths are wont to do), with special focus on her meek son James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway).
Since most of these actors are unknown Aussie first-timers, the movie is saturated with realism and feels almost like a documentary. Co-writer and first-time director Justin Kurzel creates an flypaper-like atmosphere, where you're trapped and forced to watch the slowly unfolding, terrifying story. Henshall is the key element in all of this, with his too-friendly eyes that just barely set off your animal instinct to run away from him. Of course things start out reasonably--he uses his hatred and violent tendencies to intimidate the pedophile into leaving. That almost seems like a triumph, especially to James, who is searching for an ally. But soon, in baby steps, John reveals himself to be much more dangerous than the man he frightened away. Henshall's performance is even scarier than Michael Rooker's in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, because he seems so normal when he knows people are watching. It's how he lures people in and gets them to murder 12 people and stuff them into barrels.
There are no excessively bloody scenes--but that doesn't mean the movie deals with the murders gently. It establishes a pace that's like the characters' living situation, so leaden and depressing you feel as though you'll never escape it. The murders are treated the same way with some scenes that go on for what seems like forever. It feels much more realistic than how Hollywood shows this stuff, with characters taking breaks to go on the porch and cry while their victim chokes on their own blood in the background. There's no relief in these people's world, or yours.
Somehow with all its realistic intensity, it still gets boring. Perhaps a previous knowledge of the story is needed to really keep things fascinating (and it would definitely help in ironing out some of the more confusing plot points), but since I didn't have that, I found my mind wandering while waiting for someone onscreen to finish some menial task. However, for all my sighing, the movie still kept me in its grasp, waiting for something awful to happen, because every frame broadcasts that it's inevitable. But of course there's no triumph in being proved right.