Snowtown (2011): Uncomfortable Viewing

This film came highly recommended. It was said to have the same edginess and bite that other Australian films have. Films that I adore like Long Weekend, Rogue, or even Wolf Creek. It was gritty, edgy, grim,  and incredibly hard to watch.

Directed by Justin Kurzel (this was his first feature length film) and written by Shaun Grant Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders in the US) is based on the true story of Homophobe John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) and  Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) and Bunting’s ‘gang’ of Homophobe friends who tortured and murdered at least ten men in the area who were suspected of being homosexual or were known homosexuals.

The film was shot entirely on location where the crimes took place and apart from David Henshall and Richard Greene (Barry), who were the only two professional actors in the film, locals were used for all the other parts. Where in some cases this may have hurt the film’s credibility, it added an overall grittiness and grimness to the film.

The decision to use locals was tantamount to Tod Browning‘s use of real ‘freaks’ in his 1932 filmof the same name. It makes for awkward viewing and one has the tendency to watch the film tensed up. With one eye sort of squeezed shut and not looking at the film head on. Almost like you expect one of these unpleasant characters to jump out of the screen and somehow infect your house.

Tod Browning’s controversial Freaks.

What happened at Snowtown is horrible, there is no denying it. But when watching the film you are hard pressed to be attracted or drawn to any of the characters. Dirty, apathetic, drug worn and alcohol ridden, they feel like the dregs of society who have all been drawn to the town of Snowtown like miserable moths to a flame.

The film quite openly shows the homosexual tension and interaction between the sons of a local family that Bunting befriends. It is only Bunting’s obvious dislike of any sexual act that might suggest homosexuality that Jamie becomes the willing Zoe to Bunting’s Svengali.

The film starts slow and never really picks up its pace. Even when the murders finally start happening it is done in such a leisurely fashion that I almost lost interest. This combined with the mother that Bunting was ‘living with’ being totally out of sync with her emotions (to such an extent that it was only after all her sons bar one disappeared that she finally showed some emotion) and the incestuous nature of her family made the film almost a chore to watch.

There is no humour or even ‘normal people’ to lighten the atmosphere of the film. Bunting himself was so intimidating that I found it hard to believe that anyone would willingly follow his lead. At the start of the film a boyfriend of the woman who Bunting moves in with takes suggestive photographs of her sons.

Her reaction is to shout abuse at this odious ex who lives across the street. Bunting’s answer is to systematically torture  the man by painting his house with the word Fag and other insulting phrases and dumping kangaroo heads and guts on his front porch. Bunting is so unrelenting in his campaign of hate that the ex boyfriend soon moves out.

Daniel Henshall as John Bunting.

The remainder of the film is just as unrelenting. I did struggle, at times, to keep watching until the end. When it does finish and the film tells us via subtitles what happened to Bunting and crew I felt too shell-shocked to care.

Overall, this was an incredibly hard film to watch. As I mentioned earlier it was nigh-on impossible to ‘bond’ with any of the characters. Of course Kurzel’s hands were tied a bit since the film is based on true events, but the lack of bondable characters combined with the use of locals in the film made the entire experience of watching the film unpleasant.

My final verdict is that the film is an interesting example of low-budget Australian cinema. Just be warned that you may feel like you need to take a shower after you’ve watched it.

The Torture and eventual murder of Barry.

Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

21 thoughts on “Snowtown (2011): Uncomfortable Viewing”

  1. I have just gotten around to Snowtown last weekend and I was still reeling two days later. While I absolutely agree with your observations, I found that the characters had an implied depth that is could be taken as slow or boring to watch – but to me – rang through with a quiet desperation that made them compelling. I also thought that Henshall’s Bunting was incredibly charismatic in the beginning and found it easy to believe the relationships that he establishes.

    This is not an easy film to watch – nor is it enjoyable, but it’s impact is lasting and it bodes well as a calling card for a new director.

    1. You’ll probably want to give this a miss then. Compared to Wolf Creek and Long Weekend, those were a walk in the park. Snowtown is brutal. :-/

        1. You’ll definitely want to give Snowtown a miss, then. The other aspect of the film was that in between the seamy. grimy, gritty and sordid bits of the film was boring, slow and dull. It’s one of those that if the other two films didn’t keep your interest, Snowtown may not either. 🙂

  2. Nice write up buddy. As you know, I really liked this film (well liked isnt the right word, but you know what I mean). Definitely not something Im rushing to see again!

  3. I also find it hard to become engaged in a film wherein I don’t like anyone. I need to like someone, anyone, feel some kind of empathy or sympathy. That’s also true for books i read. Sometimes I think this is a personal flaw, but I can’t change it. Good review. Think I’ll skip the film.

    1. I only watched it because it was in my LOVEFILM queue of films that could be watched now aka streaming. After getting glowing reviews from other folks, I thought, “Why not?” Yeah, grim it is and a very difficult film to view. Wise decision to not rush out and watch it. 🙂