Inspired by the books The Snowtown Murders by Andrew McGarry and Killing for Pleasure by Debi Marshall, this Australian film is not of the exploitative, fictionalized variety. All too realistic — for those in the know: this one is definitely more Animal Kingdom than Wolf Creek — and perhaps a bit too unflinching for entertainment purposes. Still, Snowtown is still worth a look if you're interested in these cringe-inducing crimes, which were perpetrated in the late 1990's and made headlines all over the world.
A stark and steely-eyed look into the abyss that is the soul of a psychopath, and which is exacerbated by life in the welfare system, drug addiction, domestic and sexual abuse — not to mention kangaroo dismemberment — Snowtown serves its subject matter well. We first meet down and out single mom Elizabeth (Louise Harris) shortly after having broken up with her pedophile boyfriend, and taking up with a new man who turns out to be much, much worse.
Of course, at first John (Daniel Henshall) seems like the perfect father figure: he takes an active interest in Elizabeth's three sons, especially the eldest. Sullen and withdrawn, thanks to being raped and endlessly bullied, and left to deal with it all on his own, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is searching for any kind of validation. The vulnerable teenager easily falls under the sway of the narcissistic sociopath and a few others in the 'neighborhood watch' committee, and together the self-appointed vigilantes set out to clean up the neighborhood by eliminating everyone they consider to be a deviant.
Their methodical targeting, torture, and disposal of their victims, 12 in all, was a sick spree which lasted for seven years. While there were multiple perpetrators and accomplices, it's the strange bond between John and Jamie that's on the agenda of the filmmakers here. Not the crimes themselves, or the horror of them (although there is one painfully prolonged scene of drawn out agony that's pretty hard to watch). Read more about the actual felonies here.
The acting was absolutely superb. Most of the cast are unknowns. Henshall (AJ Bowen should play him in the inevitable U.S. remake) and Pittaway (next Jamie, Kodi Smith-McPhee?). However, I'm really not a fan of naturalistic filmmaking (think: Dancer in the Dark, or the more recent Bullhead); I much prefer the cinematic variety. There's not much to hold onto here as far as cinematography, edits, or score. It's all gloom and grit. In spite of the inherently interesting subject matter and psychological dynamics explored, there is little in the way of suspense. I was intermittently bored throughout.
The Snowtown Murders opens on March 2nd at the IFC Center in New York, and on March 16th at the Egyptian in Hollywood.
= = =
Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson