Rewind Review: 2011’s ‘The Snowtown Murders’

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The Snowtown Murders is a horrifying Australian drama based on a real-life series of murders perpetrated in and around the poverty-stricken suburb of Adelaide.  It was a 9 year crime spree that culminated in the discovery of human remains being stored in a abandoned vault in Snowtown.  The local media dubbed them the “Bodies-in-Barrels Murders” and, after a sensationalized trial in 2003, John Justin Bunting was convicted of 11 homicides, making him Australia’s most prolific serial killer.  But Bunting didn’t act alone; he was found to be the ringleader of a crew of misfits, over whom he exerted Mason-esque control.

Check out my review after the jump.

Official Synopsis: This film is based on the horrific true story set in South Australia in the 90s and is about Jamie and his half brothers who live with their mother Elizabeth. Jamie is being molested by his half brother and a neighbor. They are friends with John Bunting, a guy who doesn’t like fat people, druggies or gay people, and he doesn’t care if you know it. Jamie is easily lead and John takes him under his wing. Jamie soon realizes that John is not a nice guy, he comes across nice when his mom and others are around, but shows his true colors when he’s with Jamie. Slowly but surely Jamie’s friends and family start disappearing, and then Jamie is put in a situation he can’t get out of. But is he as innocent as he thinks?

Straight up, most mainstream movie-goes simply won’t have the stomach for a film like The Snowtown Murders.  Of those who can handle the brutality, many won’t have the patience to take this movie all the way to the end.

As the synopsis reveals, Bunting (played by impeccably Daniel Henshall) is not the main character; while he is certainly most integral to the story arch, this film centers on Jamie (James Spyridon Vlassakis played with gut-wrenching brilliance by Lucas Pittaway), the youngest and most tragic member of his murderous pack.  The product of a broken home, this extreme introvert with low self-esteem seems a virtual magnet for abusers–strangers and blood relatives alike.  Lonely and love-starved, he’s the perfect candidate for manipulation.  At first, Jamie thinks he’s found a friend in Bunting, a charismatic father-figure.  It’s not long before we realize, however, that Bunting is far from a positive influence in the young man’s life, rather the most dangerous manipulator of them all.

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The film takes place over an unspecified number of years during which time Bunting grooms Jamie as a potential protégé.  A scene in which the Mentor shaves Jamie’s head is the beginning of an indoctrination process, akin to enlistment into military service.  This visual reminds us of young soldiers at boot camp, but also stinks of the neo-Nazi sentiments Bunting espouses.  Like the greatest of abusers, Bunting provides a false sense of security based on shelter, compassion, and understanding.  But once the bond reflects an appropriate level of dependence, Bunting allows a glimpse of the beast within, as the dialogue below will illustrate:

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Do you like bein’ fucked? Do you like bein’ fucked? So why not do somethin’ about it? ‘Cause all I ever see you do is sook, mate. No? What didjah do about Jeffrey? Fuckin’ nothin’. You see me and Robert mopin’ about? Hmm? No you don’t because you do that they fuck you forever. You don’t want that, do you? When are you gonna grow some balls, mate?

What makes Jamie particularly tragic and sympathetic is that he is clearly a gentle soul; during graphic violations, he doesn’t even resist indignities.  He craves his mother’s love, but she’s clearly trapped in her own pit of disperse, rendering her all but ineffectual.  Jamie isn’t a bad kid looking for kick and, in fact, does not go easily to the Dark Side.  Bunting employs an engrossing (and progressively more aggressive) process of mental abuse that breaks him down until, eventually, Jamie kills out of a mix fear, obligation, and (inconceivably) mercy. Bunting’s ultimate goal is Jamie’s complete desensitization; The Snowtown Murders is the story of one young man’s attempt to save his own soul.

This is a film that delves into the mentality of vigilantism in a climate of extreme homophobia.  Bunting sets passions ablaze, expounding on a broken legal system that’s blasphemously easy on child molesters and other offenders.  He paints himself a warrior for Justice, drilling his followers with the belief that these are righteous actions.  He practically flaunts his abilities to cover his tracks creating an illusion of immunity.  That crazy mother fucker thinks he’s Batman!

There isn’t a ton of gore in The Snowtown Murders but what there is goes all the way to 11.  One moment in particular, I’ll call it “The Bathtub Scene” is one you’ll not soon forget.  Worse, however, is a scene where Bunting butchers what are either real dead kangaroos or the best fucking props I’ve ever seen.  It’s the kind of nauseating and unglamorous gore we’ve seen in films like Seed and Gummo.  But when I say The Snowtown Murders is a difficult film to stomach, I’m mostly talking about the depressing, palpable bleakness throughout.  It’s a world of poverty that rivals the foothills of Appalachia, a place where hope (like role models and opportunity) is in short supply , where it’s really not all that uncommon for people to up and disappear–never to be seen again.  It’s the perfect environment for a manipulative sadist like John Bunting to unleash his wrath, not only on gays, but druggies or anyone else he deems both offensive and insignificant.

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As I was unfamiliar with the Bodies-in-Barrels Murders before I saw this movie, the action was sometimes vague.  For starters, the killing spree has no discernible beginning.  We can assume this is because we never leave Jamie’s perspective and he wasn’t involved with the first murders.  Still, the cast is rather vast and folks enter and leave often as the film plays out.  All I really know for sure is that Bunting is up to no good; the fates of particular characters who appear only briefly is often hazy.  There’s also some shocking subtext that plays out in an implied relationship between a local transvestite and a member of Bunting’s Posse.  It’s seems an almost impossible coupling under the film’s pervasive climate of hate–and yet the implications are undeniable.

Ultimately, The Snowtown Murders is less about the crimes themselves, and more about the circumstances that surrounded them and the environment where they played out.  There is nothing glamorous or stylized about this film which includes scenes of sexual assault and animal cruelty.  It’s a deep, sad, depressing, unsettling film that offers insight but never answers; viewers grapple with deeply troubling and complicated issues.  The film is long and slow and (except for the scenes of excruciating violence) incredibly restrained.  Emotions are often conveyed without words and even the soundtrack is understated and minimalistic.  It’s an experience that takes commitment to endure and is never pleasant.  Of those who do make it to the end, some will undoubtedly just as soon forget what they’ve just seen.  Others will appreciate the powerful emotions the film conveys–but even some of those folks won’t like it.  A few will hail this movie as a masterpiece.  I fall somewhere in between the latter two groups.

3.5 out of 5 Skull Heads.

Trailer: HERE

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Directed by Justin Kurzel
Produced by Anna McLeish
Sarah Shaw
Screenplay by Shaun Grant
Story by Shaun Grant,
Justin Kurzel
Based on Snowtown murders
Starring Daniel Henshall
Lucas Pittaway
Louise Harris
Music by Jed Kurzel
Cinematography Adam Arkapaw
Editing by Veronika Jenet
Studio Warp Films
Distributed by Madman Films
Release dates
  • 19 May 2011
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About Saucy Josh

I write a blog for intelligent Horror movie aficionados called Blood and Guts for Grown Ups: https://bloodandgutsforgrownups.wordpress.com/ View all posts by Saucy Josh

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