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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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