Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by:Shaun Grant
Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Craig Coyne, Richard Green, Anthony Groves, Brendan Rock
Released: May 19, 2011
Grade: A-

The Snowtown murders are a very dark chapter in Australia’s history.  Between 1992 and 1999, John Bunting orchestrated a total of 11 murders in South Australia.  He targeted those he thought were paedophiles, drug users and homosexuals.  Bunting and three others were arrested when several bodies were found by the authorities in an unused bank vault.

This film brings these events to the screen but not in a conventional manner.  For starters, the focus isn’t on John Bunting (Henshall).  It is told from the perspective of Jamie Vlassakis (Pittaway), a shy teenager who Bunting took under his wing and trained as his accomplice.  Writer Shaun Grant took this approach to help distinguish the story.  Instead of being a factual retelling of events, he explores the characters and leaves you with questions.  Was Jamie a born killer or was he merely John Bunting’s puppet?  Did Jamie’s mother know all of this going on and if so, what did she do to stop it?

The second time I saw Snowtown was at a special screening held by the BIFF Film Club.  Director Justin Kurzel may have been in attendance but it didn’t stop roughly 25 people from walking out before the end.  They weren’t leaving because it was a bad movie (at least I don’t think so) but because of its shocking content.  I can’t blame them.  This is one of the most unsettling films that I’ve seen in a long time.

I was lucky enough to host the Q&A session with Justin Kurzel after the screening and we spoke about the graphic nature of several key scenes.  He noted that many other filmmakers had tried to bring the Snowtown story to the big screen without success.  They wanted to follow in the Wolf Creek mould and make something that was part horror, part entertainment.

Kurzel chose a different path.  He didn’t want to “sugar coat” this tragic story but rather, wanted to provide a realistic portrayal of John Bunting, his family and the local community.  You can choose not to see this film but you can’t deny that these events took place.  Kurzel is merely opening our eyes to a part of Australian society that many try to keep from public view.  To borrow an analogy from a friend on Twitter (Sarah Moran), “it’s The Castle of fucked up lives around Australia.”

The fact so many people left the preview is a compliment in my opinion.  It shows what a powerful job Kurzel has done in recreating the story.  There were more killings in Scream 4 but those in the audience didn’t walk out because they knew it was “movie violence”.  The strong performances (all from unknown actors), the lack of music and the gritty cinematography make this feel all too real.

The film’s only major weakness is the way in introduces its characters.  The opening 15 minutes is particularly fragmented.  It takes a while to work out “who’s who” and figure out their place in the story.  The arrival of John Bunting and a disturbing "neighbourhood watch” meeting help make things clearer.

Having been selected to screen as part of Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival, Snowtown is a film you’ll be talking about long after you’ve left the theatre… whether you like it or not.