Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Shaun Grant
(based on the books KILLING FOR PLEASURE by Debi Marshall and THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS by Andrew McGarry)
Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Aaron Viergever, David Walker, Louise Harris, Richard Green, Beau Gosling, Bob Adriaens & Anthony Groves
Aside from maybe Ivan Milat (a.k.a. the backpacker murderer), Australia’s most infamous serial killer is John Bunting. John had a violent hatred for pedophiles, extremely homophobic beliefs, and a fascination with dead bodies. Bunting was the charismatic ringleader of a group (three others) who committed heinous murders from 1992 to 1999. THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a chilling film based upon their notorious crimes. As you might guess from its subject matter, SNOWTOWN isn’t an easy movie to watch and will likely leave you depressed. Instead of functioning as a gory serial killer biopic, this film works as a disturbing drama about a psychopath, his murderous buddies, and a vulnerable young man sucked into Bunting’s dark path.
In a poor South Australia suburb, teenage Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) is living in a crappy situation. His mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) is constantly working to make ends meet, while he suffers abuse from his brother Troy (Anthony Groves) and his mother’s pedophile boyfriend. Jamie’s distressing existence takes a turn when charismatic John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) walks into his life. John becomes Elizabeth’s loving boyfriend and offers to be a role model/father figure for Jamie. However, things take a dark twist when two people go missing and John brings Jamie in on a bloody mission to rid the world of pedophiles, homosexuals, and “weak” people.
For a film about graphic killngs, SNOWTOWN is remarkably restrained and lets the viewer’s imagination fill in its worst gaps. There’s only one corpse glimpsed on-screen and another bloodied victim is briefly shown in a montage. SNOWTOWN’s most brutal moment has elongated torture of a character who was developed early on in the proceedings, making that scene even more tough to sit through. This film isn’t an easy watch to say the least because we know exactly what is happening off-screen. The titular murders are mostly given through recorded messages that John forces his victims to say in order to cover his/their tracks. These audio bits further add to the movie’s bleak feeling of hopelessness. It’s also worth noting that the film has scenes of sexual abuse in the first twenty minutes that will make some viewers shut the film off immediately.
SNOWTOWN’s best quality comes in its believable performances. Daniel Henshall is easily the major stand-out as John Bunting. Henshall gives instant charisma and likability to this stranger who’s seemingly helping out Jamie’s family. When he takes a dark turn early on (in a scene that’s guaranteed to upset animal lovers), the viewer instantly gets a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach. Henshall’s portrayal of a psychopath who doubled as a “family man” and “vigilante” is convincing and terrifying to behold.
As the most vulnerable character in this story, Lucas Pittaway does a phenomenal job as Jamie and gets the viewer to feel a seemingly-impossible amount of sympathy towards his victim-turned-killer. Though they’re smaller in their on-screen time, Aaron Viergever (as not-the-actor Robert Wagner) and David Walker (as hobo-looking Mark Hayden) are creepy as John’s murder buddies. Louise Harris also sells her role as Jamie’s emotionally damaged mother and John’s abused girlfriend.
Besides great acting and a restrained approach, SNOWTOWN MURDERS also succeeds as a film thanks to stellar direction from Justin Kurzel. This filmmaker has gone on to direct the excellent MACBETH and the okay-at-best ASSASSIN’S CREED, but he made a strong impression through SNOWTOWN’s gritty storytelling and intense visual style. The cinematography is beautiful, making the horrific events stick out even more in contrast. There’s an atmosphere of dread and despair from the opening minutes that lasts until the haunting final scene. However, the film encounters minor hiccups in occasionally running a tad long in spots. There’s a doctor’s visit that feels plain unnecessary, while another moment has some possible child abuse that’s hinted at but is never referenced again.
THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a purposely uncomfortable viewing experience that made me feel dirty. It’s a true-crime serial killer film that also functions as a highly dysfunctional family drama. The minimized on-screen violence approach works extremely well, especially because loads of gore and torture scenes could have possibly made the film into a pretty-looking exploitation B-flick. The performances are brilliant from everyone, especially from Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway as the two leads. If you’re going to watch SNOWTOWN, then I highly recommend on reading up on the case or watching a short documentary beforehand. If you do either of those things (or both), then the movie becomes ten times as disturbing. SNOWTOWN MURDERS comes highly recommended to true-crime buffs.