Snowtown: when reality is horrific enough

A chilling film about the ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ murders in Australia favours realism over sensation.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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On 20 May 1999 in Snowtown, a small town about 100 miles north of Adelaide in South Australia, police discovered the bodies of eight people in a disused bank vault. Following a five-year investigation, John Bunting, Robert Wagner, Mark Haydon and James Vlassakis were arrested and charged with a total of 11 murders, as three other victims were later discovered buried in nearby locations. The corpses found in Snowtown were all kept in barrels of hydrochloric acid, leading the media to dub the incident the ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ murders.

They are some of the most shocking and notorious murders in Australian history. Led and orchestrated by Bunting, the group tortured and killed homosexuals, suspected paedophiles and anyone they deemed unworthy to live. Most of the attacks targeted people from their own community, and even their own families.

Earlier this year, the final few suppression orders surrounding the case were lifted so that a film about the murders could be released. A significant amount of criticism emanated from the communities in which the killings took place, and it’s easy to see why. Not only would the film be a stark reminder of a very dark time in the community’s history, but contemporary art also has a habit of trivialising tragedy. Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, for instance, which was composed of blue children’s hand prints, is a prime example. Whilst it presents itself as a comment piece on the media’s valorisation of murderers by turning Myra into a pop-art muse, the painting only further exploits a morbid fascination with murder for the sake of gaining a reaction.

The film Snowtown, however, deals with its subject far more tentatively and director Justin Kurzel’s gruelling commitment to naturalism allows the film to be respectfully authentic, yet incredibly horrifying at the same time.

The film opens with single mum Elizabeth (Louise Harris) who lives with her three boys Alex (Marcus Howard), Nicholas (Matthew Howard) and Jamie (Lucas Pittaway). Leaving her children in the charge of her neighbour Jeffrey (Frank Cwiertniak), Elizabeth returns home one day to find he has been taking naked pictures of them. Inexplicably, the police do nothing about it and, other than receiving a sound beating from Elizabeth, Jeffrey goes on living across the street unpunished.

Shortly after, a new man comes into Elizabeth’s life; the smiley, bearded John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Horrified at what happened to the boys, John encourages Jamie to take revenge against Jeffrey and together they terrorise him – pelting his house with ice cream and mutilated kangaroos – until he is forced to leave the neighbourhood. But whilst John seems only to be looking out for his new adopted family, his true intentions are far more sinister. Taking advantage of Jamie’s increasing devotion to him, Bunting recruits the teenager into his crew of vigilante serial killers.

Despite the vast amount of dramatic fodder the story offers – from Bunting’s extensive torture practices to the bizarre father-son killing team he forms with Jamie – Shaun Grant’s screenplay is incredibly withholding. Not only do we witness very few of the murders, but it’s often difficult to understand what the hell is going on. The dialogue is unrelentingly realistic and not a single line is wasted for the sake of clarifying what is happening. To make matters worse, a fair bit of it is either inaudible or completely inconsequential to the plot.

Furthermore, other than Henshall, the entire cast have never acted professionally before, and they were all chosen from around the area in which they filmed. As such, most of the performances are wooden, unrefined and austere. This dedication to naturalism is on one hand incredibly frustrating, yet on the other hand the film is also all the more convincing for it.

The devotion to a more authentic reconstruction of events never threatens to sanitize the implicit horror of the story. Indeed, the heightened realism makes the killings we do witness all the more shocking, as the distinct lack of narrative progression means we are often thrust into a hellish scene without the slightest warning.

Henshall’s stunning portrayal of Bunting encapsulates the difficult balance this film maintains. He plays him as a likeable ‘man’s man’, who the audience, along with the family, are invited to fall in love with. There is no point in the film in which he suddenly transforms into ‘the beast’. In fact, he remains largely the same throughout, and this is what makes him a believable psychopath.

In much the same way, the film’s impact lies in its ability to render the unthinkable thinkable, and to make us believe in the reality of these almost otherworldly events. In its refusal to sensationalise or sterilise the story of the ‘Bodies in the Barrels,’ Snowtown is an example of the ‘true story’ genre at its very best.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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