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The Snowtown Murders (2012)

September 13, 2012

VERDICT:
7/10 Apt Pupils

I need a hug.

The Snowtown Murders is about a young man growing up on the wrong side of town in Australia. As if things weren’t bad enough already, they took a sharp turn for the worse when his mother’s boyfriend/next-door neighbor takes it upon himself to molest this young man and his little brothers. Eventually his mom finds out about it, the neighbor goes to jail, and within days, the neighbor’s back in his house on bail. Enter John: a passionate individual with a hatred for child molesters who in turn becomes a role model for our impressionable young man. Together, they make life a living hell for the pederast across the street, so much so that he up and moves away. With that battle won, they proceed to exact their vigilante justice on the rest of the NAMBLA members in town because the authorities won’t lift a finger. But then things start to escalate, and before he knows it, the young man finds himself an accessory to a serial killer.

Unfortunately, this is all based on the all-too-true story of John Bunting and Jamie Vlassakis. For those not familiar with life Down Under, John Bunting was convicted of murdering 11 people in the late ’90s with the help of Vlassakis, and when they were finally caught, it won them two much-deserved life sentences. And since Australia’s no US of A when it comes to psychopaths and killing sprees, Bunting is generally regarded as the worst serial killer in the country’s history. As you can imagine, this is all makes for a very cheery two hours. However, it’s a morbidly compelling two hours at that.

The best way to sum up how this manages to be so very good while being so very devastating is that it’s meticulous to a tee. An admittedly ingenious way to tackle the subject matter given the types of people this story revolves around. There’s not a lot of dialogue, the plot takes its time, and as the story continues to develop, it does so through implication. During what may have been the worst date night of the new Willennium, there were a bunch of times when my wife and I had to double-check with each other over what was going on, what just happened, and who’s that person/where did they come from? A bit hard to follow at times if you’re not picking up the cues, although by no means is that a detractor from the experience. In fact, it only serves to heighten the unspoken and unseen dread that lurks behind everyone and everything involved.

As is true with any horror movie (which this totally qualifies as at times), the mere suggestion that evil things are afoot is so much more powerful than outright showing them. Although when that evil starts appearing, it lives up to its jaw-dropping reputation.

Take Daniel Henshall as John Bunting for instance. Everything I just said about the way Kerzel tells this story is mirrored in the way Hanshall owns his role. When we first meet Bunting, he’s as unassuming as they come: a congenial fellow with a winning smile who dresses like a teenager and often behaves like one, too. He’s also the only semi-positive male figure in Jamie’s life and it’s easy to see why the latter would nestle under his wing at the first invitation. Still, you don’t expect him to stick around. As far as first impressions go, he’s the kind of guy who’d make a great side character, not the guy you’d expect front and center.

But then he becomes a fixture in Jamie’s life. They drive out the pederast together, he shacks up with Jamie’s mom, he treats the kid like an equal and invites him to partake in his sordid world views. That’s when you realize that John’s around for the long haul, and the more that he speaks his mind, the more you fear for those around him. Whenever there’s an ear to listen, he’s  on the soapbox spewing hate like it’s scripture. Folks, it’s unsettling enough listening to an ignoramus rant about how someone deserves to die, but it’s something else entirely when you believe they’d carry it out.

Daniel Henshall is the reason I was this close to giving The Snowtown Murders an 8, despite it being hands-down the most depressing movie I’ve seen since Melancholia. He is utterly convincing from start to finish, and given the changes that take place, that’s saying a lot. It just gets worse and worse as his motives wane from a warped-yet-cogent bigotry towards gays and pedophiles, to straight up bloodthirsty as he sets his sights on anything moving. He is manipulative, he is intense, he is absolutely terrifying in ways you might not be able to watch. Much like the movie itself, the dude just gets in your head.

Nor does it hurt that it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

But the thing that makes this such a monster is that it’s more than just a display of human brutality, it’s an insight into human vulnerability. Right from the start, you don’t need it spelled out to see that life is pretty grim for Jamie and his family. He seems to live in a world where the forecast is an 85% chance of misery, seven days a week, and everything from the houses to its residents reflect that sentiment as well. Plus the molestations, plus having the worst older brother in the world, and you’ve got Jamie Vlassaki’s tragic young life. This is a kid who deserves an invite to Wonka’s factory so he and his grandpa live in a glass elevator for the rest of their happy days. But that’s not the card he was dealt. Instead, fate saw fit to give him Snowtown.

This is a very hard movie to watch on a purely visceral level, but it’s even harder to watch this tortured kid offer himself up so willingly and helplessly as prey. With Jamie and his brothers, you just get the sense that they don’t know any better. That, and/or they’ve just had it so bad for so long that eventually it became the norm. I wish I could say that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here, but we are fresh out of happy endings. And it’s such a striking contrast given how gorgeous some of the cinematography is and how intentionally this movie is structured. I mean, the upside is that it ends up being a far cry from the likes of Hostel; whilethe downside is that, well, Jamie Vlassakis is real.

And on that note, it’s awfully surprising to me that this movie ever got green-lit in the first place. When you’re dealing with the actions of real-life serial killers, you’re also dealing with the memories of their real-life victims. There’s good reason why they’ll never make biopics for Charlie Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer, so I can’t help but wonder how they got away with making one for Bunting? Granted, the intent here isn’t to exploit the victims as much as it is to analyze their killers, but it’s exploitation all the same. Just can’t help but wonder how I would have taken this had it hit uncomfortably close to home.

So, yeah, something to think about, I guess, and still up in the air about this movie’s existence. But then again, since there’s not much we can do about it, I suppose we’re left with two options: A) Not watch it and move on with our merry lives; or, B) Take it for what it’s worth. And for what it’s worth, The Snowtown Murders is astonishingly effective in its aims. It’s a soul crusher of the highest order, one that’ll leave you genuinely upset for a number of reasons, and even more so since you can’t just write it off as fiction. Probably not much of a selling point to anyone who doesn’t enjoy curling up and dying on movie night, but it’s hard to overlook how well-made and deftly executed it is. This is calculated film making and a calculated character study, and even it is a downer of most devastating proportions, it’s actually worth it.

Don’t say I didn’t warn ya’.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2012 1:17 pm

    Reblogged this on wweisiger's Blog.

  2. September 14, 2012 6:45 pm

    This sounds good, I have to find it somewhere so I can see it. Now I am left to watching “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”. Have you seen it? Boy, it’s so bad, even you will hate it 😉

    • September 17, 2012 5:32 pm

      Missed it because of those very reactions. Bummer though, sounded like a great premise.

  3. September 15, 2012 8:28 am

    ‘Bodies in barrels’ has become a part of the Australian vernacular after the Snowtown killings. It is still fresh in the collective memory here, even for those of us who don’t live in South Australia.
    Good review. I’d just add that there is something about the state of SA that makes the rest of us slightly uneasy. They seem to have more than their fair share of creepy murderers there. But maybe that’s just irrational prejudice…

    • September 17, 2012 5:36 pm

      Thanks! And this is all super interesting to me, especially considering how unfamiliar with it I was. Think the same goes for the rest of us Americans, too. The one time I went and visited Australia it seemed like an awfully pleasant place, but hey, every place has their SA.

      Would love to hear someone use “bodies in barrels” in a sentence though.

  4. September 15, 2012 10:42 am

    Hi Aiden, great review again, thank you… saw ‘Animal Kingdom’… which displayed the life of a family of criminals – again, in Australia – and based on a true story….saw Monster (remember with Charlize Theron innit?)… these movies depict real life events and in the case of the second, pretty close to the truth… uncomfortable for anyone too close to it too, you know?… but hey… even fiction might feel uncomfortable as it imagines and often copies real life events in different settings… and what about war reporting journalists showing real slaughters…. how do the victims (those as cats with nine lives) feel when and if they watch the news of what happened to their peers? – freedom of speech/opinion is worth it… so long as it shows some form of respect, even if the perspectives and feelings aren’t always comfortable to deal with.
    Rosie

    • September 17, 2012 5:57 pm

      Thanks, and any time! Not really sure how I missed Animal Kingdom, but from what I’ve heard, I can dig the comparison.

      And totally forgot about Monster. You’re right, it’s all about the way these stories are handled, and it’s always great to see them handled appropriately. Gotta have that respect.

      Well said, Rosie.

  5. September 17, 2012 8:18 am

    i will definitly watch this film.probobly even today.Thanks for this honest review.:)

    • September 17, 2012 5:43 pm

      Right on and thanks! Hope you dig it, sorry if it totally harshes your mellow.

  6. September 17, 2012 8:38 am

    Really fantastic review. I think you articulated in this what I felt about the film but struggled to write. This is a brilliant film and a hard watch. I’m Australian and like someone above, the real-life case has become ‘iconic’ if you can use that word. In Australia the film was simply titled “Snowtown” because everyone knows that word refers to these killings. I loved this film, but it is one I don’t think I will ever watch again.

    • September 17, 2012 6:05 pm

      Thanks, man! A tough one to sell and a tough one to watch. Really interesting to hear from Australians about it though. Can only imagine that Snowtown’s as unfortunately iconic as it is. Glad you liked it so much, but I’m with ya’, once was enough.

      • September 18, 2012 9:15 am

        It definitely is very iconic. And I seem to recall there being some probably understandable concern from residents around the area when the film was being made, that it was all being stirred up again. I think their hope was that the memory was beginning to fade a little bit. The series of murders really contributed to this notion of Adelaide being the murder capital of Australia or even the world.

        As you rightly point out serial killings are really quite rare in Australia. To put it in perspective I would have to say that there are only 2 other instances, in my lifetime at least, that are as notorious as this. As far as I know, filmmakers have stayed well away from those as sources of inspiration. Which makes it even more surprising upon reflection that Snowtown did go ahead.

      • September 24, 2012 12:22 pm

        Yeah, that does raise some serious red flags. Not the kind of reputation you want to keep reminding people about. Still, hard to knock it for its merits now that it actually exists. Crazy stuff, man.

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