James Reviews Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown [Fantastic Fest 2011 Review]

Sometimes when you go into a film with some lofty expectations, you’re going to be left disappointed. Sometimes it’s the filmmakers’ fault for not delivering the goods and sometimes it’s even yourself, who wrongly has assumed that the film you were about to see was going to be that good. Snowtown, the feature film debut from Justin Kurzel, is a film that blew my expectations out of the water and gave me the crime film I’ve truly been waiting for from Australia, especially when promised a game changer from last year’s Animal Kingdom.

Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) is a 16 year old living in Adelaide’s northern suburbs with his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) and his two younger brothers Alex and Nicholas. It is a poverty stricken life, but the family is key. But when one trusted neighbor proceeds to take nude pictures of her three sons, a neighborhood watch of sorts begins, especially when John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) comes into the picture. John takes Jamie under his wing, who is longing to escape the grime, the sexual abuse (his older step brother rapes him for being ‘weak’) and the violence that surrounds him, and it appears that he’s finally found the father figure he’s been searching for all his life.

And then slowly but surely, John starts to become increasingly vigilant in getting rid of every pedophile and homosexual that is around town. He uses a family friend, Barry (Richard Green), a cross dresser and openly gay man, to pinpoint all the known offenders in the area. At first it seems a righteous journey, to chase away all those who would hurt your children when you’re not around. It then takes a scary turn when John begins to show the wolf underneath the sheep’s clothing, his violence becoming more powerful and making it harder for Jamie to choose between right and wrong. When the secret of John’s crusade is shown to Jamie, we see the downward spiral he goes through from the choices he makes from that point forward. A journey one can’t escape once you’ve gone that route.

If I appear to be a bit shy to give too many details about the film, there is a reason for that. It’s based on a true story of Australia’s most prolific serial killer, John Bunting. But the movie itself hangs on the central performances. Especially that of the man who plays John Bunting, Daniel Henshall. An unknown in this American’s eyes, looking at his IMDB page shows he hasn’t been in as many TV shows or films as I thought he was. Mainly for the fact that this is a star making performance of the ultimate kind. He controls the screen throughout the running time, whenever he’s there in frame. When showing close-ups of him in fast motion, his face barely moves, except for the slight twitch of his eyes and his hair in the wind. It’s a chilling portrayal, one that deserves more attention. A charisma you can’t just make up, he is a presence through the film and when his anger comes out, it’s like a snake’s strike (which I do appreciate a scene later on showing this in plain view).

Lucas Pittaway who plays Jamie, on the other hand, is a very calm performance. A quiet kid who has been hurt by those around him, one imagines what if this kid grew up on the right side of the tracks. And we hope, as an audience, that he’s found a man who won’t hurt him. He doesn’t hurt him sexually, but mental and emotional abuse is the key choice here. John is molding Jamie as a son of violence, one that will be there at every beck and whim when he needs another set of dirty hands. It’s frightening to see John having his friend choke someone to death slowly, letting go, choking them again over and over for a good 2 minutes of screen time. It’s one of the most uncomfortable torture scenes on screen, to the point that Jamie chooses to choke the person to death to release them from the pain inflicted on him. And when John says a positive ‘good job boy’ to him, we know the seed has been planted and Jamie can’t escape John’s clutches.

Snowtown is not only a good film, it’s a great film and after my second day at the festival, it’s been my favorite by far. When a film like The Human Centipede II totes around the idea of extreme torture and gore as a means to get butts into the seats, it’s sad when a film uses violence as a means to tell a story. It’s horrifying because it’s based on real life, where someone did maim, torture and kill these people who he thought didn’t deserve another day on this planet. That’s a true horror story, one that I can’t wait until I see again with others, showing them why this film needs to be seen. Justin Kurzel as knocked this one out of the park and I can’t wait to see what story he brings to the big screen next.



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