Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, and Louise Harris
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 120 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
Winner of the Audience Award at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival, and selected as one of 7 films to screen in Critics’ Week at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, this film is about the Snowtown Murders that occurred in South Australia from 1992 to 1999. John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) led a group of four men, who killed their victims, and stored their bodies in a disused treasury building in Snowtown. Bunting and his group of killers chopped up 8 of their victims, and placed their bodies in barrels of acid. The group was convicted of 11 murders. All four men are now serving time in an Australian jail.
Bunting was a pathological abuser and a serial killer, who befriended Elizabeth Vlassakis (Louise Harris), the mother of James (Lucas Pittaway), a 16 year old boy. James and his two younger brothers lived with their mother in a housing commission home in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, and were part of a poverty-stricken community where assaults, hopelessness, powerlessness, and violence were routine. Elizabeth was anxious about the abuse occurring in her neighbourhood, and her new boyfriend, John Bunting, looked to be someone she could turn to. Bunting had charm and affability, and Elizabeth thought he would protect her children. Unbeknown to her, Bunting was a serial killer, who gained her trust and that of her children, before he recruited James to partner him in crime.
John Bunting is played brilliantly by Daniel Henshall, who moves from charm to sadism in the flick of an eyelid. Unfortunately, the movie tells us more about how he did what he did, rather than why he killed so viciously. It describes what happens, rather than offers insights into the reasons behind horrible acts. One needs to understand those reasons to see the movie as much more than a horror film. Knowing that each member of the group comes from dysfunctional families, beset by poverty, poor education and frequent abuse is not enough.
James, as Bunting’s partner, is a key figure in the movie. In the film he is a young man, drawn into violence by Bunting and the others. He was abused by his neighbour, raped by his half-brother, and charmed into killing by Bunting. In luring victims and participating in their murder, Pittaway gives us an impressive portrayal as an adolescent, driven further into mental illness by terrible events.
The movie has considerable controversy behind it. The relatives of the victims have expressed their upset at the film being made. Snowtown is concerned that its name is tarnished, and suppression orders exist on media photos of James Vlassakis, who testified against Bunting and the others, and who now has another name.
Billed as not a film for everyone, it is hard to see that the movie has any redeeming moral virtue, and there is very little warmth in it at all. It is unrelentingly grim. It starts with extreme cruelty to animals and moves to humans, where it stays for the rest of the movie. It details one gruesome murder in an excessive way, and it dwells on torture.
The photography in this movie is dark and brooding, and the film asks that your imagination fill in what you can’t see. There is powerful realism in what the film shows, but it is a movie that is difficult to watch, and it is coldly alienating in what it shows.
It darkens the heart to know that this film depicts truth, not fiction. As an essay on evil and depravity it works, but unhappily so.
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