John Bunting is the most notorious serial killer in the history of Australia. Beginning in 1992 and continuing through late 1998, Bunting killed 11 people, all of whom he considered deserving. He targeted suspected pedophiles and homosexuals in his spree, and in the late 90s he moved in with a mother and her sons where he soon had control over their minds, emotions, and manipulated one of the boys into aiding him in his murders. The Snowtown Murders is the story of Bunting, and is so effective, so chilling, so unnervingly well constructed, I hope to never see it again.
The film takes place in the slums north of Adelaide, where Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) is a single mother to three boys. The days of these people consist of smoking cigarettes one after another and staring lifelessly into the expanse of Australia surrounding their neighborhood. The will to carry on is vacant in the eyes of these boys and this mother, and the grey sadness of their lives is exemplified by the dry palette of the camera. The trouble for this family exists long before John arrives; Jamie, the focus of the boys, is solemn and passive. He and his two younger brothers are molested by her sister’s boyfriend who lives across the street, and Jamie is regularly molested by his older brother, though he doesn’t do anything to stop the abuse. Lucas Pittaway plays Jamie as a lost soul, and perhaps it is his Australian heritage which emphasized his resemblance to Heath Ledger.
One day, out of the blue, John (Daniel Henshall) enters their lives. He appears one morning in the kitchen cooking breakfast and entertaining the family. John is a powerful personality and it is clear he is taking charge of the dynamic in the home. Before long he begins manipulating Jamie, encouraging him to retaliate for the wrong that has been pressed upon him. The way he asks questions and controls conversations make it seem like there is only one answer to everything. He mutilates kangaroos to throw the remains on the boyfriends’ front porch, he begins to change. Without any type of concerted effort – he is simply being himself – John has pulled Jamie into his orbit.
The chilling way in which John takes over the film is one of the great affecting techniques of the film. John begins seeking out his victims, murdering them in a bathtub and disposing of their bodies. The film becomes a battle of the powerful will of John against the weak, lifelessness of Jamie. He is passive and weak minded, and John preys upon the desperation of the family in order to fulfill what he sees as his duty. His victims “deserve it” in his mind and Jamie is powerless against the magnetism and ferocity percolating in the pure evil of John’s soul.
I do wish the film would have been a bit more clear, especially towards the end, but the vagueness of the actions in the conclusion still leave an effectively unsavory taste.
The Snowtown Murders is one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen. This is more brutal and unflinching than Larry Clark’s Bully, more gritty than Requiem for a Dream, more stressful than any film experience I have endured. But that is the goal of the picture; this is a study of a maniac whose charm and magnetic personality made him all the more dangerous. Imagine Charles Manson as a “hands on” leader of weaker minds and you have John Bunting. He is currently serving eleven life sentences for his murders, and Jamie will be eligible for parole in 2025, when he will be 45 years old. Here is a film with a specific duty from first time director Justin Kurzel. I don’t know if I am glad I saw it, but I have seen it, and I will never look at it again.