Warp Films do not make the most digestible of movies. The past few months has seen their name attached to the brutal horror of Kill List as well as Paddy Considine’s absorbing debut Tyrannosaur. It is no surprise therefore to learn that Snowtown, a film based on the ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders of Australia’s most notorious serial killer John Bunting, is part of Warp’s increasingly noteworthy stable.
Following an encounter between a local paedophile and three of her sons, single mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) is relieved to have John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), self-confessed vigilante of the “diseased”, step in to mete out his own brand of justice. And in Bunting, Elizabeth’s impressionable son Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) finds a father figure. Yet instead of being his salvation from the violent trauma that has scarred his youth, John leads his new found disciple closer to the abyss.
In his feature length debut and with a cast largely made up of first time performers, director Justin Kurzel has made an astounding piece of work. The 120 minute runtime is not so much watched but endured. The relentless bleakness of a drab housing estate on the outskirts of northern Adelaide provides the perfect canvass for Kurzel. The cold grey tints of the photography paired with intermittent murmurs of an understated but darkly portentous soundtrack combine for an exhausting experience. It pushes the viewer to the precipice of oblivion from the very beginning as even scenes at the family breakfast table threaten to explode into unimaginable brutality. However, the greatest success of Snowtown is the effortless blending of the mundane domesticity of suburban life with the horrific nature of the crimes. Kangaroos are regularly butchered in the garden; cricket commentary resonates in the background during a violent rape, whilst locals unknowingly lend a hand to digging foundations for an extension that doubles as a mass grave.
John Bunting, capably brought to the screen by the only professional actor in the cast – Daniel Henshall, is a character that naturally has a sort of magnetic horror due to the true nature of the story. As repulsive as his atrocities are, his capability to carry them out and the rationality he places behind them make for a compelling watch. Whilst most of these horrors take place off screen, occasionally revealed through the recorded voice messages Bunting forces his victims to make, there is one prolonged scene of torture that is truly distressing. Yet even here, where other directors may lose their way, Kurzel follows through with the film’s convictions as it is at this point that Bunting is revealed for the monster he is.
Make no mistake about it; Snowtown is an incredibly difficult watch but a remarkable film nevertheless.