A film about the Snowtown ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ murders could have gone a number ways. The organised series of killings in the Adelaide suburbs during the 1990s could have easily resulted in a serial killer thriller narrative or even an ultra violent spin on the gangster genre where the crime family are motivated by bloodlust rather than money. Instead, Snowtown is an extreme exercise in Australian miserablism designed to demonstrate how toxic ideas spread like a plague in vulnerable communities to manifest in the most horrific way possible.
The minimalist throbbing soundtrack, the stripped down improvised dialogue by the film’s predominantly non-professional cast and the relentless depiction of the suburban bleakness and despair makes Snowtown extremely grim viewing. However, this is not a film offering vicarious thrills from a safe distance but a film designed to get under your skin. It seems designed to reveal how somebody like John Bunting (played by Daniel Henshall, the film’s only trained actor) can infiltrate a depressed and frustrated community to spread fear, hatred and bigotry. Unlike the similarly themed The Boys, which was a very tightly structured character study building to a shocking conclusion, Snowtown is a slow burning and slightly more sprawling film where the violence seeps in to the story with a disturbing casualness.
The film focuses on Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a fatherless teenage boy who’s the victim of the type of abuse that John claims is epidemic. Similarly to J in Animal Kingdom, Jamie is an almost blank slate. He doesn’t speak much, is socially awkward and highly impressionable. As his worldview becomes shaped by John’s seductive self-righteousness and he witnesses how much other members of the community approve of John’s agenda, he eventually follows John in his deranged crusade.
Most of the rest of the characters in Snow Town exist on the periphery and one frustration with the film is how difficult it is to sometimes keep track of who is who, let alone identify with many of them. However, withholding so much character information seems like a deliberate alienation strategy. It dehumanises many of the other characters to reflect the way the murders become part of Jamie’s daily life. Eventually, when a character is bumped off they are just another body and not worth dwelling on.
For a film containing very little actual onscreen violence, violence and brutality run through the veins of Snowtown as an expression of the very worst attitudes in society. Snowtown shows what happens when the irrational outrage, paranoia and prejudice of a community is harnessed by a charismatic figure. Once somebody like John convincingly validates those destructive feelings and promises to deliver the solution, those feelings can increasingly wield influence, stripping away compassion and rationality to the point where murder eventually becomes an acceptable outcome. John even likens the drive behind his vigilantism against ‘perverts’ to the Anzac spirit in a scene where the film disturbingly demonstrates how a popular leader can twist history and mythology to justify anything. Snowtown is a startling and sickening insight into Australia’s heart of darkness.