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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide