The Snowtown Murders, a 2011 film directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant under Warp Films Australia, is an interesting and unusual study. It bears specific affinity to me as a former student who debated the merits of Blaxploitation (a cinematic form geared to depiction of Black deviance) and a female writer who both questions the efficacy of matriarchal systems in Black communities while examining the perils of the patriarchally-led alternative. At the end of the day, it is a story and viewing experience that should be evaluated personally and within its own merits outside of ethnic, racial, political or gender identifications. The film, and story it contains, should be approached as a wholly personal experience with no constraints to bear response based upon societally-determined legions.
On the one hand, The Snowtown Murders is an unquestionably brilliant depiction of a provincial environment of chain smoke and gray pallor that I recognize very well–whereby the simple offerings of eggs, bacon, toast, sausages and coffee can cement the beginning of a kinship stronger than many blood relatives. These “kin” feature adults who make plans over Sunday dinners to punish any suspected child molester and save money for required Holiday gifts. Within it, otherwise normal children love ice cream, birthday parties, their friends and bicycles. Tea kettles sing. Bowling balls clamor. The people dance in community halls where women take on “play brothers” and uncles who will refrain from sexually accosting them. The young men enjoy stand-in fathers to make up for the ones who are not there. In cure to loneliness, unpaid bills and general complacency, they all pretend not to notice each others’ eccentricities and weird personas that appear almost surreal to viewers outside the environment. The women are on edge. They see the malfeasance. Their lips purse at the unspeakable. But, they remain silent and cooperative, supportive and believing, hopeful and nuanced.
That, all of it, I do know. I can relate to. I can understand.
But on the other hand, the absolutely unnecessary (and true crime) atrocities against human beings that The Snowtown Murders depicts is satisfactorily unfamiliar to anything I have ever known in my life. Male rape of other males is customary and commonplace, mere moments of submission to walk into and endure. Half-brothers progress from simple wrestling games to sodomy. Women are helpless, totally lackluster and unmoved by the unsavory acts men commit around them. Friends and neighbors witness tortures, chokings, and other forms of atrocity or murder that remain unpolished in depiction and affect. This is no art house film. At times, it views as a snuff-film. It is the type of true-to-life film work inaugurated by Scorcese and continued by contemporaries such as Lee Daniels: real time, natural lighting and first-time or just some-time actors.
The Snowtown Murders depicts the killing spree (with just some of its victims) of John Bunting, Australia’s only well-known serial killer. Bunting committed up to 11 alleged or proven grisly murders in a span of less than a decade. Bunting bounced around Australia until he settled himself near and within the family of Elizabeth Harvey. He was married to another woman at the times. Due to his patriarchal power to provide such essentials as dinner and occasional motorcycle rides, he was allowed to infiltrate a neighborhood in Murray Bridge, Australia, after living in suburbs such as Adelaide. From there, he endeared himself to the families, neighbors and young people around him as a deterrent to sexual abuse and homophobic violence. He used an unspecified income source to subsidize the daily bread of many natives who would have otherwise existed on cigarette diets. He became particularly bonded to Elizabeth Harvey’s children, most notably a young sexually-abused son named James Vlassakis. Vlassikis later assisted with at least one killing (his own half-brother), and he saw Bunting dispose of all the bodies collected presumably at the mercy of Bunting’s impulses to slaughter.
Over time and for reasons that can not possibly be completely addressed by a 2-hour film, Vlassikis became a prime accomplice to Bunting’s tortures and murders unto the end. There is some indication of how this could have occurred; the young James is completely and totally tossed around by his mother and her new boyfriend, according to the whims of their turbulent relationship based upon survival and sex. If all of that were not bad enough, most of Bunting’s victims were familiar people that all torturers knew. Finally, Bunting and his entourage contained victims he deemed “useless junkies” and “child molesters” within industry barrels that rested in an abandoned bank he rented in Snowtown, Australia. It was a terribly ugly, bad, sad scene. With time, the sexually abused and unemployed Vlassikis seeks treatment for the schizophrenia that all these bizarre, incessant events makes him think he has. While doing so, he has lost all awareness of the date and even the year.
I figured I was in trouble twenty minutes in the film, when the presumed anti-homophobic and anti-pedophile community savior Bunting thoroughly dissects three kangaroos as if they are raw turkeys to be served for Thanksgiving dinner. His reasons? There is a child molester in the neighborhood who should experience the strong message of finding the bloodied and smashed remains of these animals at his front door. This is his entrance into a carte blanche attitude and demeanor to inform the remainder of his actions. Director Kurzel presents him like a horror figure, a man to come behind from the rainy shadows or to appear during crying fits. But monsters rarely torture or manipulate. They show up with their tools of mutilation, do their damage and leave. Not so with Bunting. He actually appears to be a trusted “friend” to his victims, so that they play into his hands and set their own selves up for the type of definitive endings in this world that none of us can imagine.
It gets progressively worse. Although he remains relatively composed and calm throughout the film, almost static, Bunting begins to reveal his victims as normally as he would voice a paper cut: there is never clear grounds for why he killed, he expects others to somehow comprehend the dead, and he treats arbitrary human imperfections as grounds to justify their deaths. And, he enlists several young and impressionable men to help him carry out his mission–all of whom came to serve high or life imprisonment sentences along with him.
For Black and American audiences, the characters’ commitments to religious service and worship will come across as peculiar here. For, while it is clear that these are somewhat poverty-stricken and broken people, the insertion of Christian-dogma in the midst of such methodical, callous and almost entertainment killing will seem so false as to be angering. But, given the more stylized Hollywood celebrations of White male deviance such as Silence of the Lambs and a number of blockbusters like it, there is some solace to be gained in the risks Kurzel takes in his unrelenting portrayal of not only Bunting–but the zombie-like accomplices around him who actually tolerant the inhumane acts of murder Kurzel was admirably spare at detailing. Child abuse is not an apt term to describe how Bunting expires James’ half-brother Troy, who did rape him–but whom James himself walked out of the torture of but finally killed himself in mercy to what more Bunting planned to punish the brother with for this act. By the time Bunting and another methodically strangle this offending brother to within inches of his life several times over, with the gurgles of blood and precious oxygen audible apparent in his last breaths, any watcher must decide who these people they watch are and who they are for watching. The characters who strain to see themselves as somewhat separate from Bunting are near comatose. So was I.
The low-budget ($250,000) film premiered at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival. It won the festival’s “Audience Award. It was selected as one of seven films from around the world that were shown at International Critics Week competition and Cannes, where it was awarded a Special Mention. And, for all its grim acts and maddening characters, it deserved such. For the attempt to shed light on such a story, its lack of attempt to humanize most people involved in the story, and its honesty that deviance and violence are domains of the entire world–and not just minorities–on a level that even the sweet and nice people Down Under should be identified, depicted and scoured for their contributions to this world’s abominations and violence.