Written by: Shaun Grant & Justin Kurzel based on the books by Debi Marshall and Andrew McGarry.
Starring: Lucas Pittaway (Jamie Vlassakis), Daniel Henshall (John Bunting), Louise Harris (Elizabeth Harvey), Aaron Viergever (Robert), David Walker (Mark Haydon), Brendan Rock (Marcus), Richard Green (Barry), Anthony Groves (Troy), Bob Adriaens (Gavin), Frank Cwiertniak (Jeffrey), Matthew Howard (Nicholas), Marcus Howard (Alex), Beau Gosling (David).
The Snowtown Murders is an almost unremittingly bleak movie about almost unspeakable evil. It is a movie about the most infamous serial killer in Australia history – John Bunting – who manipulated people into helping him commit multiple murders. We often hear about serial killers manipulating their victims – how else could they rack up so many victims without anyone noticing – but the crimes themselves are really rather crude. It is the way he worms his way into the lives and heads of his co-conspirators that is really chilling. The Snowtown Murders is not a procedural examining the crimes in detail – some of the murders are only mentioned, some implied and only one is really shown in any real detail. Instead, it focuses on a damaged kid and how Bunting got him to help kill.
The movie opens on the family of single mother Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris), who asks a neighbor to look after three of her four sons for a few hours. When she discovers that the neighbor forced her kids to strip so that he could take pictures of them, she is incensed – and although the police are called, he’s out on bail fairly quickly – and resumes his life, sitting on his stoop and staring across the street at her house.
For the oldest of the three exploited sons – Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) the pictures are not a huge deal. After all, his older brother Troy has been molesting and raping him for years. Yet, the revelation that there is a “pedo” in their midst gets the locals riled up. And this is when Bunting shows up along with his friend Robert Wagner (Aaron Viergever). At first, it seems all he wants to do is torment the pervert across the street – revving his motorcycle on his porch late at night, and enlisting Jamie in helping to throw a couple chopped up kangaroo carcasses onto his porch. Then, John moves in – presumably because he is dating Elizabeth – and starts holding court in the kitchen in front of all the neighbors – going on about degenerates and pedophiles and “fags” all around them. The way he phrases everything makes it nearly impossible for you to disagree with him – and then he bullies, in a nice way, people into saying just what they would like to do to all these degenerates. For Jamie, with no father in the picture, John at first seems to be the only adult male he can trust – and who cares for him. So when he shows Jamie a dead body, although he is terrified, he goes along with what John wants him to do. And John continues to increase his demands on Jamie as the murders progress.
Co-written and directed newcomer Justin Kurzel, The Snowtown Murders is a movie without any hope, without any joy. This is a movie about a damaged kid, who was already heading down a bad path before John Bunting entered his life. He was ripe for the picking. He had already learned to go along with what older, more powerful men want – from his older brother, who he relents to rather easily when he wants to rape him, to the pervert neighbor across the who asks him to strip. At first, it seems like John actually cares for him – unlike those other two. He is nice to Jamie, listens to him, makes him feels like he belongs. And from there, it is surprisingly easy to get him to kill for him.
There is only one murder graphically depicted in The Snowtown Murders, but it is unforgettable as it shows how Jamie crosses the line between being an accomplice to a murderer. When he does it though, it almost seems like an act of mercy more than anything else – something he does simply to stop the torture that John and Robert are inflicting on their victim – even though Jamie is the one who truly has reason to hate their victim.
As I said earlier, those looking for an in-depth account of Bunting and his accomplice’s crimes may end up disappointed. The crimes themselves are not what the movie is really about – it is really about what the judge in the case called the degenerate sub-culture that Bunting fostered. In a movie like this, performances are key – and newcomer Lucas Pittaway does a fine job as Jamie, as he moves from damaged, quiet kid, to damaged, quiet murderer. But it is Daniel Henshall as Bunting who is truly chilling. In many recent fictional serial killer movies, the killers are portrayed as charming and funny – creepy, yet likable – think Hannibal Lector. But Henshall's performance as Bunting as far from that, although he shows up with a smile. His performance is one of the most chilling, realistic portraits of a psychopath I have ever seen in a film. Very few movies about serial killers deserve comparison to John McNaughtons disturbing, indie masterwork Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with its great performance by Michael Rooker. Kurzels film, and Henshalls performance, earn that comparison.