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In Art Linson’s memoir “What Just Happened” (and the subsequent film adaptation), the famous producer of “Fight Club” laid out a cardinal rule of cinema: Never kill the dog, or risk losing the audience’s sympathy. Since first-time director Justin Kurzel doesn’t require an audience’s sympathy, the sacrifice of man’s best friend midway through “Snowtown” is a price worth paying for the unflinching look at the relationship between John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer of recent memory, and Jamie Vlassakis, a young man who becomes indoctrinated into his crew.
The film is really a story about Jamie’s coming of age rather than a straight retelling of Bunting’s crimes, which sets it apart from most dramas about serial killers, but that Kurzel is committed to a naturalism unusual for depicting such brutality, both in physical and psychological ways, makes it particularly unusual. In fact, Bunting isn’t even introduced until around the 20-minute mark of “Snowtown” and when he is, the cherubic, bearded man would fade into the background a bit if he weren’t so outspoken. Jamie first meets him at a meeting of parents from the neighborhood, where Bunting hypothetically asks what he would do to the pedophile who lives across the street that invited in Jamie and his two younger brothers to take nude photos of them. With his mother frozen in a state of perpetual grief, Jamie is an easy target for predators of any kind who can offer him some direction.
The problem with Lucas Pittaway’s performance as the blank-faced 16-year-old is that while Jamie is convincingly malleable to everyone’s whims but his own, he’s also not very compelling as he strips down for his neighbor or witnesses Bunting’s murders with no instinct to take action. “Snowtown” builds to two separate tipping points where he finally does, and both serve as the film’s two most gripping scenes. Yet for the most part, Kurzel’s insistence to keep the details of Jamie’s life mundane (and likely accurately so) as he’s drawn further into extraordinary circumstances keeps Pittaway, and by extension the film as a whole, from ever becoming involving. It could be argued that the audience is simply feeling Jamie’s own remove, aided by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s atmospheric photography, but the distance proves insurmountable for investing in the characters on screen.
Still, Daniel Henshall is as captivating to watch as Bunting as he is to Jamie, clearly given to indulging in the salacious aspects of the story in ways the rest of the film refuses to. Non-threatening in plain clothes, Henshall’s Bunting teases everyone with questions that are a bit too personal and gets away with it because of an ever-present half-smile, enough to make him king of a low-rent land such as Snowtown where they still drive Toyota Coronas in the late ‘90s and play “Space Invaders” on tabletops. It’s the most interesting hook of Kurzel’s film that while Bunting is not the central character, he pulls everyone else into his orbit and as the bodies pile up at his hand, deaths that would seem justified by his front of wanting to rid the community of child molesters, it gradually becomes obvious he’s feeding his own sick desires.
The idea of trading one devil for another is a fascinating one and Jamie becomes engrossed thoroughly in Bunting’s world, the film never retreating to show Jamie’s brothers who are so prominent in the first third of the story or looking back to see what impact any of their actions have on anyone outside of the bloodied bathrooms and bedrooms they use for their crimes. However, save for Henshall and Jed Kurzel’s evocative synthetic score of electronic hums and murmurs, “Snowtown” may be a little too coldblooded for its own good, burrowing inside a bleak history for an accurate retelling, but having trouble getting it out in a way that moves.
"Snowtown" will be distributed by IFC Midnight in the U.S. It will play Fantastic Fest once more on Tuesday, September 27th.