Snowtown (18)

This tale of a serial killer will haunt you for years.

Snowtown (18)
dir: Justin Kurzel

Watching the film Spanking the Monkey, about a compulsively onanistic young man who becomes friendlier with his mother than nature intended, the actress Mary Tyler Moore is said to have exclaimed: "And there I was thinking it was going to be a nice, wholesome movie about masturbation . . ." That's more or less how I felt during Snowtown. What begins as a story of child abuse moves quickly out of the frying pan and into the belly of a raging volcano. It comes to something when you start bargaining silently with the film, asking whether we can't just go back to the child abuse.

Australian readers won't need telling that the movie is named after the town where John Bunting, the country's most prolific serial killer, stored his victims' remains. The writer, Shaun Grant, and the director, Justin Kurzel, choose as their entrance into that story of unimaginable horrors a life of blandly conceivable ones. Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is a dazed teenager, scraping by with his three brothers and his bird-like mother (Louise Harris) in a northern suburb of Adelaide. The boys zoom around in shopping trolleys, play video games and wrestle one another to the ground. What
larks! Only not.

One day, there is a man in the house. And that's how life changes: no fanfare, no thunderclap, just everything altered irrevocably. John (Daniel Henshall), with his twinkly eyes and matey smile, can smell vulnerability at 30 paces: he spots the dad-shaped hole in Jamie's life and fills it. Like the world's most intuitive casting director, John identifies the lad as accomplice material, when he might just as readily have cast him as, say, "corpse number five".

To John, a stranger is someone he hasn't considered killing yet. His eyes are always X-raying those around him for exploitable flaws. His most casual conversations are like woodland graves covered with leaves, into which he leads his victims by the hand. Henshall (making his first film appearance, like many of the cast members) reveals the density of this sadism, showing how chumminess can be a weapon
as deadly in its way as any knife or axe.

In choosing his targets, John is anything but indiscriminate. Suspected paedophiles are the first to go. Next are homosexuals, drug addicts, the disabled and anyone easily isolated. Most of the characters fall under that umbrella - as the film tells it, theirs is the land that Australia forgot. The lawns and skies look man-made, hammered out on an anvil. In the dusty yards, there are sunloungers stripped to the slats like fleshless skeletons. The police never come around. Jamie dials the emergency services once, then replaces the receiver, possibly in shock that there is anyone out there.

Violence is limited largely to one long torture sequence. How long? Jamie can't bear to watch so he plods outside and sits on the porch. Children cycle past, ringing their bells. The rain descends. It's very "Musée des Beaux Arts" ("the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree"). Then Jamie goes back inside and the victim is still not dead. That's how long.

Even harder to stomach is the simple shot of John and Jamie watching a man with learning disabilities in a playground. "Will anyone miss him?" asks John. I like to think I will forget that line one day but the chances don't look good. It's chilling in its mundanity and illuminating about the principle behind the murders. The community is already dying when John insinuates himself into it and starts hosting bizarre kitchen-table summits in which he goads his neighbours into fantasising about punishments for sex offenders. (It's like eavesdropping on a morning conference at the Mail.)

These people don't matter to one another or to anyone else: none of them, not just the man in the playground, will be missed. John is continuing society's work, devaluing those lives considered worthless so that his victims are dead in theory long before their bodies are cold. Snowtown is a film as conscientious as it is disturbing but if you are considering seeing it, it's worth recalling some advice from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road: "The things you put into your head are there forever . . . You might want to think about that."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis