I don't yet know enough about Australian cinema to be able to pigeonhole it. Somewhere between Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Kangaroo Jack there is, I'm sure, some representation of the truth. But after the recent Animal Kingdom, Sundance's Wish You Were Here and now The Snowtown Murders, one can't ignore the seriousness of their elegantly shot, brutal dramas. (Five points for me for saying “seriousness” and not “Yahoo Seriousness.”)
The Snowtown Murders opens with a deliberate distance. A single mother and her three – make that four – boys are introduced through short, pointillist scenes of domestic shabbiness. She asks the nice neighbor (a potential new suitor) to look after the three youngest when she goes out to “see her ex.” It's never quite clear where she actually goes (some kind of waiting room? alone at a casino?) but while she's gone the seemingly good guy cooks the kids spaghetti and, without resorting to violence, takes photos of them with their clothes off looking unhappy.
It is unclear what actually went down, or why the oldest of the group, Jaime, who seems big enough to refuse or fight back, did not. This disconnect between physicality and behavior is nothing, however, compared to the character of John Bunting, played brilliantly by Daniel Henshall.
Henshall's John Bunting, one of the most curious screen psychopaths in ages, has a kind smile, a beard and a soft frame – heck, he kinda looks like the beloved hippie Jon Fishman from the band Phish.
But he's got, as my wife says, “the crazy eyes” and when his beer-fueled bluster about what he'd like to do to pedophiles goes dark, it doesn't take long to realize he ain't fooling.
The curious way Jaime and John connect is emblematic of what makes The Snowtown Murders so effective. It. . .kinda just happens. A neighborhood gay man (Barry) catches wind that the boys were abused by the neighbor and tells the distraught mom. Barry wears a pink furry sweatsuit, chain smokes and has tattoos, Elvis sunglasses and a specific moral code that is absolutely fascinating. He introduces kind the family to John, and is also the first one to get murdered by him when the anti-pedophilia vigilantism kicks off.
Put aside the heavy issues for a minute. Not since Synecdoche, New York have I seen something that just nails how life, y'know, just kinda unfolds in a disorienting manner. People float in, people float out, not everyone gets a full introduction. This movie, which (surprise!) is based on a true story has a remarkably unscripted quality that does not simply feel like people making it up as they go.
There are gaps in the narrative such that the passage of time is only traceable thanks to a second act haircut. There are also moody, music-based impressionistic snippets of “pure cinema” that don't have much bearing on anything other than this is what it felt like to be Jaime at this point in time.
It is impossible to understand John, but it's a speck easier to get inside Jaime's head. Turns out his older brother (half-brother?) has been raping him (or is it just the one time?) and he's a diagnosed schizophrenic (or is that a ruse to get medication?) Eventually, the killing starts (always punctuated with a doomed answering machine message) and while the business is quite brutal, most of the blood is actually off-screen.
The Snowtown Murders is one hell of a movie, particularly since the director and all the key leads are first timers. I must admit that I felt it didn't quite “stick the landing” as it were. The film felt like it was building to a great revelation, and it hits it, but in an uncharacteristically undramatic way. The standard post fade-out crawl of what actually happened to the characters seemed to diminish the film with its specificity. If you are like me (a head-up-his-ass American) you probably never heard of this event, even though it is the biggest Australian criminal case in the past 40 years.
Final note: don't be sleepy when you go to watch this. The US distributor is IFC Midnight and I took them literally the first time. The disorienting introductions had me snoring within five minutes. But the buzz was high so I gave it a second shot at high noon and, as you can tell by this review, liked it a great deal.