Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders) is one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever seen. It took me three viewings to finish watching it: I called the first one off because the accumulated horror and dismay had become too much; I restarted it hours later, stopped again after a few minutes, and then finally, on the third viewing, went all the way to the end. I was apprehensive about starting the movie again and was relieved, very, when the closing titles began. So, Snowtown is a hard movie to sit through. Is it any good? Answering this question seems to be required of anyone that writes on it, so let me answer with a brief ‘Yes.’ Indeed, I might watch it again. That won’t make it any easier though.
Most notably, Snowtown is as brutal as it is because the series of killings that are the subject of the movie are enabled by human manipulation. Wills are broken before bodies are; this is the story of those who kill, and those who help them kill. And this is why the image of Jamie Vlassakis, who was convicted of four of the eleven ‘Snowtown murders’ with John Bunting, is portrayed so prominently on the movie’s posters: Bunting had accomplices, those that he talked into aiding him in his horrific acts, those that found, in aiding Bunting, some way of connecting with a world they felt themselves cut off from. Their manipulation is as much centerpiece of the movie as the murders and can be just as disturbing. There aren’t any happy endings in the movie, those that could make any of this manipulation worthwhile.
There is overt violence in Snowtown: stranglings, torture and rape. But there is violence of another kind too, that of verbal manipulation and abuse, the slow, relentless, corrosion of lives–humans can not just terminate other humans’ lives but also distort and warp them. Movies about serial killers are, at their best, deeply unsettling glimpses into a netherworld of psychological affliction and pathology, one in which standard conceptions of our fellow humans fail to find purchase. But their effectiveness relies on their portrayal being realistic enough to engage us so that we cannot merely mock them as monsters through the bars of their cages. What makes Snowtown work is the almost-documentary-like feel of a particular kind of modern suburban life, documents we’ve seen before and come to associate with the pathology on display: the slow, decaying tableaux of video games and televisions in frumpy living-rooms, of grim supermarkets and small-town streets, and most of all, the seemingly aimless, yet chilling, conversations that animate them. (Every good director devises a palette of colors all his own; Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel employs a ghastly grey and dark scheme that works as a visual metaphor for the slow bleaching out of life). One of the most horrifying thoughts triggered by Snowtown is that our modern lives and worlds are full of settings like these, theaters in training for the acts showcased here.