There is a scene midway through Justin Kurzel’s new film “Snowtown,” a recreation of the events which triggered the killing spree of Australia’s worst serial killer John Bunting, in which we see, in unnerving and uncomfortably graphic detail, one of the first murders committed by Bunting and his followers. One of which is Jamie, a boy Bunting has become a surrogate father to after forming a relationship with the boy’s mother, and through whose eyes we witness the events of the film, first from a standpoint of objective repulsion and fascination, later with the subjectivity of a thirst for murder. During this first brutal act, however, Jamie cannot bring himself to watch the atrocities visited upon the victim, and waits outside the house in a traumatised state until he is forced back inside by Bunting. It’s a moment of enforced voyeurism which in all ways becomes a psychotic rite of passage culminating in Jamie garroting the victim in an act that plays like a mercy killing, sparing the suffering man further bloody beatings and horrific near strangulations.
By the close of the film, in a final shot deliberately recalling that of “The Godfather,” Jamie leads the gang’s victim to an abandoned building, and the door is closed on the eye of the prying camera.
The first of these murders is that of Jamie’s older brother Troy, who early in the film sexually abuses his younger sibling. Is Jamie’s killing of him therefore truly inspired by mercy, or partially by revenge? At first one must say the latter, being that a sense of grim satisfaction is derived by Jamie from the sight of his abuser’s torture: yet the sheer monstrousness of this torture greatly disturbs Jamie, as does his complicity and pleasure in his older brother’s pain, and ultimately it is ending the horror that motivates Jamie’s strangulation of Troy. The final murder of the film is that of Jamie’s brother in law, and is committed with a starkly dispassionate blankness, complete with slight creepy smile, that is so at odds with the earlier death: unjust cruelty is no longer something to spare people from, but something to revel in. In short, the first murder involves on Jamie’s part a severe moral dilemma lacking from the second murder, which is instead an act of savage barbarism. Yet the audience doesn’t see the second murder, but is completely privy to the full moral ambiguity of the first.
“Snowtown” is a difficult film to grapple with, but what is certain about it is that it’s in the sections of the piece where morality is interrogated and confused that the film works best. Sequences which use flickering slow motion images, almost Tarkovskian in their bleakly surreal beauty, and recreated audio recordings the victims were forced to make near death to their mothers, explaining their impending long “absence,” are certainly powerfully emotive, as are the scenes of disturbingly sustained sexual and psychological brutality: yet this only really adds up to virtually unstomachable and motiveless flourishes of charged storytelling. These scenes aren’t unimpressive but they are to some extent alienating, distancing us from real engagement with the horror of the story: in the same way that not showing us the final murder finally isolates us from the characters’ descent into the complete suspension of motive and morality. The film works best in scenes which metaphorically play out like the first murder we see: we are uncomfortably forced to take a perspective on the full unadulterated evil shown on screen, which in this case is the nature of how Bunting related to both the family he ingratiates and the wider community.
The film is impressively acted by a group of non-professionals, yet they gravitate around the sole professional actor on screen, Daniel Henshall, in a way that eerily echoes the way Snowtown itself surrounded and interacted with Bunting. Henshall plays Bunting, and as soon as he is revealed as a vicious, deranged murderer whose choice of victim has become wanton and impersonal he degenerates into a clone of virtually any other effective film serial killer, elevated only by the rare distinction of having existed in reality. The most fascinating moments of the performance and the way the character is treated come earlier in the film, when the perceived mass pedophile threat in Snowtown is what appears to be motivating Bunting’s erratic and violent victimizations. We are introduced to Bunting first as a man tormenting and intimidating Jamie’s mother Elizabeth’s ex-boyfriend, who in the opening scenes of the film forces her children to pose for explicit photographs, and only afterwards as the new flame in her life and surrogate father for her abused children. Bunting’s politics are ruthlessly right wing and intolerant, and we are of course aware that his hyperbolically verbose descriptions of how local perverts should be dealt with are ultimately going to take a more horrendous shape than that of hypothetical bravado. Yet Bunting succeeds in hounding out, through extremely nasty but crucially non-violent means, Elizabeth’s pedophilic ex-boyfriend from the neighbourhood, and his first murder victim is a local transvestite: a deeply unnerving and perverse character who through his very awareness of local sex pests is implicated in encouraging the rife sexual threat in the town (though how real this threat is and how much it’s Bunting’s imaginative exaggeration is a question left unanswered.) The fact that both victims deserved punishment does not excuse the nature of their punishment, but it does place Bunting in the morally dubious role of the vigilante, instead of the unambiguous role of the murderer. Later in the film, when Bunting selects victims based upon mental disability rather than people who have damaged the community, he ceases to be morally interesting, as his actions are unequivocally amoral.
The community and its representation in drama has long been an idea I’ve found personally fascinating, especially since its roots can be traced directly back to classical tragedy. The device of the Chorus in Greek Tragedy is not just an audience doppelganger, or a means of instructing the emotional and moral perspective we should subjectively and objectively respectively take to the drama unfolding, nor is it merely a means of displaying the effects of the Aristotelian tragedy of magnitude, whereby a tragic act should affect not just the protagonist but all in the world they inhabit. Rather, the Chorus represents community and unity, the balance of the natural order a tragic hero physically and symbolically stands apart from and thus creates a rift within. Only by bringing a tragic hero to a low and degraded state, and thus re-asserting the moral superiority of the Chorus and the natural order, can the catharsis of classical tragedy take place: for example in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” the revelation of Oedipus’ terrible yet unwitting evil reduces him from being King of the citizens of Thrace, who comprise the play’s Chorus, but a physically humbled figure of a polluted man who is cast out of the city into exile, and further away from the Chorus and all that is natural. This relationship between the individual the community, the hero and the Chorus, has been played about with in drama ever since, and its influence can even be seen in film. In “The Deer Hunter,” the men played by Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken attain a tragic dimension in the way their experiences leave them spiritually ostracized from the community, and so they are cast out of the natural order of experience. In Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” the director playfully subverts the relationship between outsider and community from that portrayed in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s extraordinary morality play “The Visit,” which inspired the film. In “The Visit,” the visiting female millionaire successfully exerts her influence over the town and submits them to her will, corrupting the natural order and forcing it to cast out the heroic male voice of dissent. In “Dogville,” Nicole Kidman’s character becomes anti-tragic, in that having been brought low by the community’s abuse refuses to bend to the will of the Chorus, and instead executes it.
The community of “Snowtown” sits around tables eating and discussing, with Bunting amongst them, the perverse threat within their community. Bunting’s proto-fascist stance on the problem is reiterated, justified, encouraged, and he is elevated to the figure of community protector. A man seeking to create a rift in the natural order is welcomed into the community with open arms. On a microcosmic level, what are we to make of Elizabeth, the mother of three boys who first brings a pedophile into their lives, and later a serial killer. If the film is tough to watch, it is partly because the victims of the atrocities and Snowtown itself are not treated compassionately, but rather as being complicit in the horror that visited them.
“Snowtown” is one of those films which is undeniably impressive yet is at times impossible to watch: the oppressive tone and content of the film prompted several occasions in which I considered leaving the cinema purely to escape the film. Like Von Trier’s earlier film “Breaking the Waves,” the ambiguous morality of what we are watching simultaneously repels and fascinates us. Like Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” the sheer visceral impact of what we are witnessing is disgustingly compelling. Like Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” we cannot choose but follow a character whose inner horror appalls us. Like all controversial films whose controversy is grounded in philosophical consideration, “Snowtown” asks important questions to which there are no easy answers: in this case, what if our society is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon it?