Child abuse, homophobia, and mental illness come together to horrifying results in The Snowtown Murders, a based-on-real-events tale of a South Australian Charles Manson-type who convinces a group of friends to help him carry out a series of brutal murders. Set in 1998, Justin Kurzel’s film begins by eerily establishing its milieu of Salisbury North, a rundown lower-class suburb full of ramshackle homes and cruddy looking streets. In this bleak milieu, 16-year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) is introduced, alongside his two younger brothers, being photographed in the nude by the latest boyfriend of his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris). In the aftermath of that event, Elizabeth meets John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who soon ingratiates himself into the family, all while preaching to locals, at regular neighborhood get-togethers, that homosexuals, pedophiles, and other deviants must be dealt with harshly—a call-to-arms that casts a spell over Jamie, who’s desperate for a strong, protective father figure.
Kurzel balances gritty realism and slow-motion dreaminess, creating a sense of haunting malevolence rooted in Jamie’s strengthening kinship with John. Sexually violated by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves), Jamie finds himself inevitably pulled into John’s murderous line of work, which The Snowtown Murders details with chilling graphicness. More terrifying still, however, is the film’s acute portrayal of the many corrosive forces preying upon Jamie, who’s cast as a lost and psychologically troubled victim driven by circumstance to embrace the worst role model possible. As the damaged teen, Pittaway gives a performance of increasingly robotic detachment that captures the character’s dissociation from not only his actions, but everyone and everything around him. It’s an understated and affecting turn matched by that of Henshall, who, as the Australian serial killer—ultimately convicted of 11 murders, his victims’ bodies mostly kept in barrels hidden in an abandoned Snowtown bank—exudes a chilling viciousness underscored by a righteous, hateful moral code.
Availability: The Snowtown Murders is available on DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It is also streaming on Netflix.