Extraordinary cinema isn't always a pleasant thing to behold, and these days it seems like the norm for films to gloss over the ugliness with glitz and flash. Enter Justin Kurzel's "Snowtown", domestically known as "The Snowtown Murders", though I absolutely refuse to address it with such a clinical title. "Clinical" is the last word I'd use to describe it, since most of the shocks and pains of this picture do come from a place of honesty.
While describing some of what was going on in the film to my roommates, they were repeatedly asking if this really happened, as if the truth of it would somehow degrade over time. Indeed, that is very much the emotion that I had while watching the film, was one of denial. The film starts out so smoothly, and indeed is able to continuously trick us into feeling that smoothness again and again, all the while a storm outside is brewing, and it's right there for us to see anyway.
Based on the real Australian murder story between 1992 and 1999, "Snowtown" focuses in on a lower-class suburban family in the titular town, who undergo abuse from the mother's deceitful boyfriend. Out of the distress of the situation comes John Bunting, who lifts the family up out of banality as protector, leader, but eventually master. Things soon fall out of the family's control, and they find themselves in a situation from which there is no escape.
There is a great deal of cruelty going on in this film, and nearly every single time it dawns onscreen it proves unsettling and debasing to the normal upbringing of this family. None of the grotesque imagery of the film would work if they didn't have something honest and real to ground all this conflict in. The raising of these boys is constantly demolished by the acts they're forced to do for the people who are "protecting" them.
The film's protagonist, Jamie, is the main representative of this infiltration. Lucas Pittaway plays things really enclosed, but to a point of repression, but of not knowing exactly what he's supposed to feel. There's a shyness there, as well as a general unease about the events going on around him, but he has no bravery. He's utterly helpless against the crude events going around him day by day, and all he can really do is be submissive to it.
There is one moment of true action on Jamie's part, and the scene is played so devastatingly as the emotional climax of the character. There's the hope that that bravery will come back in some sort of way, but it is repeatedly stamped out by Bunting's brutality. As a patriarchal figure, Bunting is extremely abusive in how he attempts to stamp out the "ugliness" in this neighborhood. He's a person who backs up his opinion with so many words that nobody questions him, even as his reasons for killing people clearly don't hold up.
Adam Arkapaw's camerawork excludes the idea of an easy escape from these circumstances, barely ever cutting away from the action, and slowly bringing us back into the violence. On one level there's the hope of not being shown anything at all, but we secretly crave the violence onscreen, if only for release. If only for the chance to know somebody's dead and the cruelty is ended, but it keeps spiraling around like an enclosing fence constricting our characters deeper and deeper.
If anybody is getting any sleep whatsoever in "Snowtown", it would certainly be excused, and the cinematography very much gives the opinion that people are barely staying awake, but completely unwilling to close their eyes to the pain and horror of it all. It ultimately becomes a half-awake dream-scape, or more appropriately nightmare. Jed Kurzel's spare musical arrangements create a somewhat shifting groundwork for the film, like the land is caving in on itself under our feet.
Throughout the film, the one prevailing emotion that overtook me was one of escape; that I needed to get out of "Snowtown" as badly as the character did. I kept hoping with complete desperation that the film would just end, and then it kept going on and prolonging the sufferings of all these characters. It would never have worked if it took the easy way out, and deep down we really desire that pain more than our reluctance to see it prolonged.