Snowtown hits you in the guts, and then sticks in your head with a deep, disturbing and utterly real account of one of Australia’s most bizarre murder mysteries.
I will preface this review by laying some prejudices out on the table. I am utterly cynical of Australian film. This is especially the case if it has ‘Australiana’ written all over it and is ridden with cliches. So I went into this film curious but a skeptic. And I don’t think the trailer helps sell it to anyone like me.
Snowtown is a dramatised version of what most people know as the ‘bodies in barrels’ murders that happened in the 90s, committed by John Bunting who is currently behind bars.
Beginning in what seems like an ordinary suburban setting, it quickly shocks you, revealing secrets lurking inside the Adelaide suburb. The very ordinary setting and characters permeates the whole film and makes the story much more confronting. The deliberate move to cast unknown actors from the area was smart and added to the atmosphere. Many of the characters are often mute or underplayed. The subtlety enhances the more climactic moments.
After an incident with a paedophile across the road, three teenage boys are met with a new father figure in John Bunting who mysteriously arrives into their lives as a kind of protector. Jamie, the 16-year-old falls under his wing, even as John’s violent and homophobic ramblings disguised as anti-paedophilia become more and more vicious. The adults sit around the dining room table and talk about what they’d do if they caught one of the ‘queers’ with their boys.
The frame of mind and justification for Bunting’s actions is best summed up when he compares killing ‘paedophiles’ or ‘pinkos’ to Australian soldiers going overseas to killing foreigners and being commemorated during Anzac Day.
For me, I saw the film as shining a light at the hidden violence and viciousness of what are disguised as pure family values when taken to their extreme. There is a much darker story underneath wholesome ordinary suburbs.
It’s significant that this story was not done as a horror film, like other serial killer stories such as Wolf Creek and Ted Bundy. The impact is much greater because of it. The realism and the contrast to the ordinary make the often violent and gory scenes that much stronger and more disturbing. Some of them still sit with me. This isn’t a film for someone easily horrified. And it’s harder to dismiss than the often unrealistic or exaggerated ways in which horror is done.
It’s Daniel Henshall’s performance as John Bunting that holds it all together, the scary part is once again in how ordinary he is, covered in that facade of warmness. He could be anyone’s next-door neighbour and you wonder how this can all go on without people noticing for years.
With the director and writer carefully considering the subject matter, the film is produced extremely well and makes the whole thing quite strong whilst not turning it into something sensational. Something well worth seeing if you’re not easily rattled or disturbed.