Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Premise: Based on a true story, an Australian single mother and her family get involved with a self-appointed neighborhood watchman named John Bunting. Bunting enlists locals to rid the community of people they believe to be pedophiles but what starts out as earnest vigilantism descends into murder.
What Works: Serial killers are a very common subject both on television and in the movies. They are usually portrayed as contemporary boogiemen and a lot of police procedurals are about a villainous predator terrorizing a community until he is brought down by heroic law enforcement officers. The Snowtown Murders is a different kind of film. It does not start out like a typical serial killer story and the filmmakers misdirect the audience’s sympathies and expectations so that the violence creeps up on the viewer in much the same way that it does on the characters. As the movie opens, a single mother (Louise Harris) is betrayed by a neighbor who has been abusing her children. When the authorities fail to act, she turns to John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who rallies other community members, including her teenage son (Lucas Pittaway), to harass the neighbor into leaving town. This sets up Bunting as a moral leader, the kind of figure audiences are used to cheering for in the movies. As Bunting leads the group into increasingly violent behavior the movie shifts. Whether the people they target are in fact guilty of crimes against children is vague but it is also increasingly irrelevant. What begins as citizens taking back their neighborhood turns into a syndicate of murder in which Bunting holds total control over everyone’s lives and is able to manipulate them into torturing and killing others. That makes The Snowtown Murders a very different kind of serial killer film, one that it is about the way in which violence is a collective activity. Vigilantism provides a cover for a serial killer to do his work and it confuses the moral order, making evil difficult to recognize until the characters are knee-deep in it. In this regard The Snowtown Murders is a challenge to its audience. The filmmakers upend the easy moral distinctions that most serial killer films rely on and everyone, either by action or by complicity, is implicated in the mayhem. That makes The Snowtown Murders not just a serial killer movie but portrayal of daily violence and an examination of the way our best intentions for justice can become twisted.
What Doesn’t: The Snowtown Murders has a very naturalistic style that keeps its characters and events at a distance and so the audience will not find themselves absorbed into the story in the way that they are in most conventionally made dramatic films. The movie is no less engaging but the distance that the filmmakers maintain between the audience and the subject may be strange to viewers who expect this film to play like other crime thrillers. The Snowtown Murders is also a very tough film to watch. Like Taxi Driver and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the movie has a violent and seedy atmosphere. Scenes of violence and sexual assault are staged in medium shots and often filmed in unflinching and often long takes. This adds to the unsettling nature of the movie and the willingness by the filmmakers to produce such a smart and uncomproming look at violence is to their credit. But viewers should realize that this movie is designed to make them uneasy rather than reinforce the easy morality of more conventional serial killer films.
DVD extras: Deleted scenes, commentary track, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.
Bottom Line: The Snowtown Murders is a difficult and unsettling film but it is also a sophisticated story with some terrific performances. This is a movie that asks the audience to think about violence and society’s response to it and it is a challenge to both viewers and to mainstream filmmakers.
Episode: #437 (May 5, 2013)