Welcome to the stocky, pudgy face of evil. Justin Kurzel’s film manages to make the vile criminal clan of Animal Kingdom seem positively well-adjusted, sharing with that work a shabby suburban aesthetic, a passive main protagonist and its roots in an authentic tale of Australian depravity. It portrays a darker world, though, a medicated plywood and lace curtain hellhole were the police never tread. Living in a housing trust home in a Northern Adelaide development, a one-kangaroo town of overgrown grass and coin slot entertainment, Elizabeth (Louise Harris) is initially pleased when bright-eyed and bushy-bearded John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) shows up to scare a local paedo creep away from her three sons. As the oldest, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), starts to look up to John as a father figure, the latter goes on a moral mission to rid the area of the creeps, weirdos and junkies that the criminal system seems unable or unwilling to handle. But there’s a sliding scale of criminal justice, and John’s idea of who needs to be punished and how seems to slide more than most. He’s charming, manipulative, coercive and abusive, and people have a habit of disappearing whenever he’s around…
Authentically, viscerally convincing in its performances and milieu, Snowtown throbs with tension and a deep sense of wrongness from its first reel onwards. The horrors within it are always located in a recognisable setting, John’s poisonous bullshit is always served up around the table with the food. Arse rape takes place to a cricket commentary, kangaroos are dismembered on the back porch, kids on bikes and scooters blithely sail past a house where a man is being tortured to death, and when a gun first appears it does so through brightly coloured plastic strip curtains. Cute knick-knacks and ornaments litter the shelves above the wood panelling, and in front of them everybody is on smack or morally compromised or bears the mark of Cain. Nobody looks like a movie star (Henshall is the only pro actor in the cast), the sound design is oppressive and exhilarating, and the photography is perfectly unbeautiful. Without Louise Harris as the mother I strongly suspect it would be unwatchable; you never stop believing that she loves her sons and that she is essentially a good woman - but she largely vanishes from the film in its later stages. It’s a brilliantly realised nightmare, though not one that I imagine the Australian tourist board are too happy with.
It’s horrible. It’s brilliant. It’s horrible.