Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Snowtown Murders: the Bodies in the Barrels

The grisly discovery of a number of bodies dumped into barrels rocked the working class Adelaide suburb of Snowtown in 1999. The critically hailed “based on a true story” film will not do much to restore the community’s reputation, depicting all manner of depravity happening there behind closed doors. Disappointingly, Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders (sometimes simply billed as Snowtown, trailer here) mostly repackages conventional banality of evil themes, Cannes plaudits notwithstanding, when it opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Jamie Harvey’s mother Elizabeth sure can pick them. She dumped her last boyfriend when his pedophilic tendencies began to surface in earnest. At least, her next beau has some standing in the community. John Bunting is the leader of Snowtown’s self-styled neighborhood watch. He is also psychotic. Nobody objects when he hounds her ex out of town. However, his pathological hatred of pedophiles (which includes more or less anyone he does not like) manifests itself in steadily escalating acts of violence. Before he knows it, the impressionable Harvey has helped fill up a barrel of body parts.

In Kurzel’s film, most of the actual murders happen off screen. Instead, he shows the audience fraternal rape, sexual abuse, and some of the least appealing nudity you will hopefully ever see on film. At least Snowtown cannot be accused of cheap titillation.

Yet, despite the lurid subject matter, Snowtown is a shockingly draggy film. When a crime drama is described as brooding that means it is slow. It is also unpleasant to look at, luxuriating in the tacky décor of the white trash bedroom community. It will inevitably be compared to David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, which is somewhat fair, since they share a common cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw. Snowtown simply lacks the strongly drawn characters and memorable performances of its predecessor.

Still, to give credit where it is due, Daniel Henshall takes viewers to some interesting places as Bunting. He clearly suggests something of a Napoleon complex at work and conveys Bunting’s uncanny ability for sizing people up. His scene swaying Harvey over to the dark side truly crackles with intelligence and menace. Unfortunately, the balance of the film simply lacks that fire.

Deliberately withholding genre satisfaction, Snowtown is the sort of psycho-vigilante movie that tells viewers to eat their peas and then finish their homework. Yes, it convincingly makes the point the schlubby guy next door could be a monster, but that is surely well worn ground by now. After all, the Shadow was telling the Greatest Generation they had no idea what evil lay in the hearts of men back when radio was the biggest thing going. Ultimately, Snowtown has some sharply written moments, but the whole is rather flat. It opens Friday (3/2) at the IFC Center in New York.