Movie Review : The Snowtown Murders (2011)

Since I was little, horror movies have served as a measuring stick for courage and sometimes perversity of character. "I dare you to watch this. It's the sickest thing," we used to say, the word "sick" implying both that it was impossibly cool and thoroughly deranged. THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS easily lives up to the ''good old days'' movies like HALLOWEEN or THE EXORCIST III. Its depraved, unflinching portrait of the real life murderer John Bunting makes it a tremendous boogeyman movie. Serial killers movies might not be so ''in'' anymore, but THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a story that deserved to be told. While director Justin Kurzel had a deep understanding of his movie's themes, he made questionable stylistic choices that made it a challenging, yet uneven viewing experience. 

John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) is Australia's worst known serial killer. He was arrested in 1999, along with three accomplices, for the murder of twelve people. THE SNOWNTOWN MURDERS is his story, told throught the eyes of his stepson and co-defendant Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). He's portrayed as a quiet and awkward kid, starved for a positive male presence in his life, which John Bunting gleefully purveyed. But as he settled in his role as a husband for Jamie's mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) and as a substitute father for Jamie and his younger brothers, the real John Bunting starts showing up. He holds neighborhood councils in Elizabeth's kitchen, where he displays off-the-charts levels of aggressions against the perverts who ruin the neighborhood, starting with Elizabeth's ex-boyfriend Jeffrey (Frank Cwiertnak) who abused of the boys. It started with a noble idea...

THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a brilliant movie in some aspects. Spearheaded by Daniel Henshall's brilliant, subtle and layered performance, it goes a long way into exploring the complex dynamics of abuse and exposing the vigilante myth. The Vlassakis boys are drifting in existence, trying to latch on to a stable force of any kind. By purveying the boys what they needed, Bunting found a noble disguise for his dark instincts. While he wasn't a pervert like Jeffrey, he wanted something from the boys just as much: a morally righteous excuse for committing murder. I thought it exposed the challenge of vigilantism very well. If you start killing people for a moral reason, you become the moral authority yourself and therefore the sole reason behind committing murder is whether or not you decide if a person deserves to live. John Bunting caught himself in the game big time and while he first killed an alleged pedophile, the last person he killed was for ''being a yuppie."

That, Justin Kurzel exposed in a brilliant, evocative way. That's the thing THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS has to offer. Otherwise, it takes a series of frustrating shortcuts both narratively and visually. For example, I didn't agree with the dynamic portrayed between Bunting and Vlassakis. The Evil Stepfather and the Blubbering Mess have starred in many movies and their cliché natured clashed with the stark nature of their business. According to the real life story, Bunting had been grooming Vlassakis to kill people since he was twelve, so I doubt he was that reluctant to kill people. Being a control freak and all, I'm sure Bunting would've planned to kill him if he thought he wasn't up to the task. 

Visually speaking, it sure is beautiful. I like Kurzel's long, patient shots and his use of a minimalistic soundtrack to create atmosphere. It work. My problem with the visual aspect of THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is that it's somewhat of a one-note song. Justin Kurzel has a gift for portraying bleak business, but sometimes it's bleak for the sake of being bleak. Everybody is fat and deformed and eats food that looks disgusting. I don't know what's up with food in that film, but there is a lot of eating scenes. The lack of range and the repetitive downtime scenes handicapped the pace and had me zoning out at times. Unlike a movie like KILLER JOE, which textured itself with dark humor and visual contrasts to make the viewing experience more dymanic.

THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a brutal journey inside the mind of a man who thought his duty was to cleanse society of people he didn't like. The most frightening part of that journey is knowing this man exists and is alive and well in prison, today. Its complex and detailed portrait of abuse and Daniel Henshall's splendid performance as the fun-loving, protective, self-righteous and control-crazed Bunting are good reasons to watch this movie alone. Aesthetically speaking, it means well and yet it falls short of its ambitions. Nonetheless, if psychological horror is your thing, THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a good pit stop as it will spark discussions with your friends and has a few scenes that will dare you to watch. That's why we watch horror movies anyway, isn't it?



I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

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