'The Snowtown Murders'

Were it not for director Justin Kurzel, many, many people would know much less about the Snowtown murders, the most sensational and grisly crimes in Australian history. It's not merely because of Kurzel's film, Snowtown or The Snowtown Murders here in the United States, either. He petitioned the Australian courts to lift all the remaining suppression orders on the details of the case.

There were 250 to begin with, and though we here in the U.S. are not terribly familiar with high-profile criminal cases being essentially censored, Kurzel's movie might help you begin to understand why a government would want to do that sort of thing. Snowtown is a dreary, impoverished town in South Australia. It is there that teenager Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) lives with his mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) and his brothers. Based on the number of half-brothers Jamie has, it seems safe to assume that he's been exposed to a revolving door of his mother's boyfriends over the years. Elizabeth's latest squeeze -- a neighbor -- takes advantage of her single motherhood by taking lurid photographs of her boys when they are left in his care.

After the police refuse to intervene in the case, she turns to John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) for help. Bunting is the ringleader of an informal anti-pedophilia group in the community. There, he and his followers vent frustrations and fantasize about doling out violent punishment to pedophiles who remain on the loose. Bunting, with the help of Jamie and his brothers, engages in enough grade-school-style harassment to drive Elizabeth's ex-boyfriend out of the community, emerging as a father figure to Jamie in particular along the way.

Those developments would seem a lot brighter were it not for a few subtle details -- the blue-gray light that pervades the entire film, Bunting's clear delusion and exaggeration of the threat from pedophiles in their community, a scene where Bunting and Jamie hack dead kangaroos into pieces. Those subtle details foreshadow a downward spiral into darkness for Jamie, who quickly becomes entangled in Bunting's paranoia-fueled violence.

Last week, in my review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a movie about a fictional mass murderer, I wrote that what was most chilling about it was that Kevin felt much more real than your average cartoonish Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Well, here we go a step further. We have a very real serial killer in John Bunting. Even more disturbing, Bunting is a charismatic figure who gets those around him to assist with his horrific deeds. Worst of all, though, The Snowtown Murders does enough to convince you that, were you in Jamie's shoes, well, you too might end up caught in Bunting's web and doing the same. (This is particularly so in the both the best and most difficult scene to watch in the film involving Jamie and one of his half-brothers, Troy, played by Anthony Groves.) It is quite a trick by Kurzel to turn his viewers into murder accomplices -- one that speaks to the power of the film.

The Snowtown Murders is also the second movie I've seen this year that cast predominantly inexperienced, local actors, the other being the terrific Beasts of the Southern Wild. In fact, other than Henshall and Richard Green, who played one of Bunting's first victims, the entire cast was from the area where Bunting's crimes were committed. I'm not suggesting that all films should start doing this, but when a really strong local flavor is required, as it was in both of these cases, it can pack quite a punch.