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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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

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