Whatever one ends up thinking about The Snowtown Murders, it’s difficult to deny that it’s a deeply impressive work. It’s Australian director Justin Kurzel’s first feature, and on the basis of this, he’s not only remarkably assured at telling a story as economically as possible through images, but also knows how to conjure up an authentic sense of place—in this case, the working-class milieu of Adelaide, Australia’s northern suburbs—and come up with the right visual shorthand to vividly evoke mood and reveal character. Kurzel also seems to have a sure touch with actors, judging by the utterly natural performances he elicits from a mostly nonprofessional cast. All of this helps to make The Snowtown Murders an indubitably unnerving experience; as a horror film about an innocent teen who somehow becomes an accomplice to a band of serial killers, Kurzel’s film is grimly, viscerally effective.
But The Snowtown Murders isn’t intended to be a standard run-of-the-mill horror shocker. It is, in fact, a fictional dramatization of real-life events—in this case, the last few of the notorious South Australian “Snowtown murders” perpetrated by a bloodthirsty crew led by the charming but psychopathic John Bunting. And it’s on the dramatic level that Kurzel’s film ultimately comes up short.
Screenwriter Shaun Grant’s approach to tackling this sordid material is to tell it from the point of view of Bunting’s teenage accomplice, James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a troubled teenager whose mother, Elizabeth (Louise Harris), becomes romantically involved with Bunting (Daniel Henshall, who’s terrifying in this role) after a previous affair ends badly when she discovers that her boyfriend/neighbor has been displaying pedophiliac tendencies. As Pittaway plays him, James is an awfully difficult person to read; he wears a consistently stoic expression on his face, one that only starts to waver when he begins to realize the full extent of Bunting’s psychosis. Kurzel, perhaps following his main character’s lead, doesn’t invite us to necessarily sympathize with James; he prefers to observe him from a distance, potentially giving us room to contemplate, based on what he presents to us, not only what led James to fall into Bunting’s vicious gang, but also how Bunting managed to roam undetected within James’s community for as long as he did before he and his gang, James included, were caught.
For a while, it seems like Kurzel’s and Grant’s cold-sober approach might actually be justified by the insights it yields into the appalling behavior on display. It’s implied, for instance, that James has been without a steady father figure for years, and that after the disaster with his mother’s pedophile boyfriend (which may well not be the only instance of abuse he’s had to go through over the years), he’s open to the kind of warmth and affection Bunting initially exudes. For someone as emotionally stunted as he is, perhaps it’s inevitable that James might at first be willing to overlook what others might reasonably consider some of Bunting’s more alarming idiosyncrasies. (Bunting’s idea of taking revenge against that pedophile boyfriend, for instance, is to chop up some kangaroos and spill the bloody remains on his front door; James willingly participates in this, on Bunting’s urging.) And considering how passionately Bunting rails against pedophiles out in public, it’s no surprise that his fellow Murray Bridge residents—tired of criminal elements menacing their homes and deeply suspicious of the police, believing they would only help them if they were rich—embrace him and allow him and his group to become unofficial neighborhood watchmen; they feel they have nowhere else to turn for safety and justice.
Bunting, of course, eventually reveals his true colors to James and his mother: how his hatred of pedophiles eventually extends to basically anyone who bothers him in some way (disabled people and gays become targets) and how his complete lack of human empathy allows him to imagine himself as judge, jury, and executioner of those he tortures and kills. (Somewhat like Dexter, the forensic analyst/serial killer of the eponymous Showtime television series, he justifies some of his killings by telling himself that his victims were guilty of unspeakable crimes, and as such won’t be missed.) Thus begins James’s descent into his own personal circle of hell at Bunting’s hands. And it’s at the point that Bunting’s evil becomes fully apparent—the turning point coming when James himself ends up strangling his own half-brother to death, an act that’s depicted as one of ambiguous charity on James’s part—that the limitations of the film’s approach begin to come disappointingly into view.
Perhaps it can be legitimately argued that the enormity of Bunting’s crimes is just too much for any one film to be able to completely fathom, and that a more honest approach would be to, as Kurzel and Grant do here, simply stand back and observe the behavior and allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions as to root causes and implications. And yet, in the end, is such an oblique approach really inherently superior? As the atrocities pile up, and as an already distant lead character becomes even more emotionally closed-off, The Snowtown Murders degenerates into little more than an unpleasant wallow in depravity, the directorial detachment yielding increasingly less in the way of insights. The film is, in some ways, to the Snowtown murders as Paul Greengrass’s United 93 was to 9/11: a spuriously “objective” look at a seemingly senseless tragedy that ultimately has very little, if anything, to reveal about it. The Snowtown Murders has the power to leave one rattled, for sure, but alas, we are left none of the wiser for having endured such ugliness.