At 119 minutes and with an emphasis on the nuances of the characters' relationships and psychology, Snowtown is what I'd call a simmering pot. Calling it a slow burner would imply there's some kind of climactic explosion at the conclusion, which there isn't. It's more a very chilling period, or a punch in the solar plexus that makes you bend double to muffle the pain of the impact. When the film closes and the credits roll, with a disconcertingly jaunty piece of music, you are left feeling cold and kind of derelict--something like the abandoned bank vault where all the bodies were stored alone and forgotten for so many years.
You know, thinking about it now I don't even know if I would call Snowtown a `horror' movie, because it certainly isn't a conventional one. There is very little gore aside from some severed kangaroo limbs (the noise that accompanies the image is even more disturbing) and a particularly gruelling torture scene which plays a pivotal part in the narrative--and it's because the film is not exploring body horror (despite the grisly subject matter), but psychological horror. Or, if this doesn't sound too pretentious, the many shifting faces of horror.
The thing with Snowtown is that it all takes place in this densely populated and moribund suburb of a major Australian city where crime is rife and the authorities don't care. In steps John Bunting, who in its despair and abandonment, the community scraping by on government benefits looks to as a leader, a dispenser of justice, and to the main character, a father figure. Charming and charismatic, John soon ingratiates himself into the heart of the community scarred by paedophilia and drug abuse. He champions ideologies which border on hypothetical lynch mob operations against those deemed morally corrupt. It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that John does not discriminate between paedophiles and homosexuals, obese people, drug addicts and the mentally handicapped. His highly amiable facade begins to crack and splinter, or maybe he's choosing to slip the mask off himself, giving glimpses of something truly monstrous lurking just below the surface. It is the insidiousness, the perniciousness, the snake-like perversion of domesticity which is horrifying.
John is like a black hole; as soon as he walks into the room you are sucked into him. He reflects no light, he is merciless, and yet he seems to seek approval from the 16 year old protagonist--the transformation of whom from timid victim to casual murderer is very unnerving. I'm always fascinated in situations like this when there is a pack of killers--because it definitely feels predatory and calculated in the extreme--by the bonds formed between them. Aren't they afraid of one another? Are they so removed from humanity they believe they are outside it, that they don't suspect they could fall victim to the same atrocities they are committing? How can they trust each other so? How does one get to that point where killing one's friend or brother or neighbour is second nature, is so callous it's almost banal?
The horror of it is the banality of the horror itself. Does that make sense? The fact that an entire community was aware to varying degrees of the atrocities unfolding, that so many people were complicit and did nothing, didn't question the abrupt messages left on answering machines by loved ones? There's a scene which sums up this centrifugal theme of evil finding its place in the home when the complicit characters walk twenty yards from a living room where a child sits watching TV to the backyard to a shed which contains corpses stuffed into bin bags.
There were a couple of points in the film when I thought `I can't watch this, I have to get out' because the level of reality was so claustrophobic and intense. But I persevered, stamping my feet and whimpering to compensate for the brutality of what I was witnessing, and the end left me utterly drained.
This is a very impressive piece of film-making on all fronts. Highly recommended, though not for the squeamish.