Violence in the Suburbs

Originally published in 101 Films’s Black Label blu-ray release of Snowtown

Violence is part of Australian identity. Australia is a nation built on the colonialist violence inflicted on the First Nations people and the suffering of the British and Irish convicts transported here during the first 80 years of European occupation. From Ned Kelly to Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, violence is a defining characteristic of many of our romanticised outlaw folk heroes. And of course violence is the very foundation of our obsession with war and the military, most overtly expressed through the almost religious devotion Australians have for the ANZACs, the soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought and died in World War I to then become mythologised as embodying the spirit of defiance, mateship and endurance that shaped Australian identity throughout the 20th century.

Despite these foundational dark undercurrents throughout Australian history and culture, real-life contemporary violence is still something Australians struggle to come to terms with. When the Snowtown murders were revealed, it was genuinely shocking to have discovered that throughout most of the 1990s a group of men, led by John Bunting, had been murdering people in and around the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury and disposing the majority the bodies in a disused bank in the quiet South Australian regional town of Snowtown. The murders seemed to be initially targeting paedophiles and sexual predators, but quickly became less discriminate.

Justin Kurzel’s 2011 film Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders) attempts to make sense of this shocking crime that most people did not know much more about other than the grim details about the bodies being found in barrels. Having grown up only half an hour’s drive from where the murders took place, Kurzel approached the material with a sobering observational style with the majority of the cast members being non-professional actors and shooting the film only a few streets away from the location of most of the murders. The result is a visceral and raw film from the perspective of James ‘Jamie’ Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a 16-year-old boy who becomes part of the nightmarish inner circle of killers that was led by John Bunting, played in the film by Daniel Henshall, one of the two actors with professional experience prior to the role. Rather than providing definitive answers, explanations, or a moral resolution, Snowtown focuses on the banality behind the horrific crimes to suggest that these murders were not isolated cases, but born from a brutality that surges just below the surface in everyday Australian life.

Snowtown is not unique for the aspect of Australian culture it represents, but it does present a less common vision, although one that audiences and critics often bemoan as being overrepresented in Australia’s supposedly ‘doom and gloom’ cinematic output. Many of the early most notable films from the Australian Renaissance era of the 1970s were period films or the Ozploitation genre films, both of which provided social commentary through allegory. Films set in the suburbs of major cities, where most Australians live, became more common in the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the social, class and ethnic diversity of contemporary multicultural Australia. However, there was also a dark underbelly of Australian cinema that took a much darker and more cynical look at the Australian suburbs as places of poverty, drug abuse, violence and crime. Many of the most notable films that explored violence in the suburbs were films based on or at least inspired by true events. Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) was inspired by Neo-Nazi crimes committed in Melbourne, The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998) was influenced by a 1986 murder of a young woman in Sydney, Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000) was a biopic of the celebrity criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read and Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010) was inspired by the murder of two police officers by a Melbourne-based organised crime family in 1988.

Snowtown asserts the degree to which it belongs to this suburban tradition very early. After the hypnotic landscape shots at the start of the film, the first location shown is the family home where Jamie lives with his mum and brothers. Slumped in an armchair dragged out into the backyard, Jamie is surrounded by iconic imagery of Australian suburbia: a Hills Hoist washing line, cricket stumps and pieces of corrugated iron, traditionally used for roof tops and sheds. These are items that are so ubiquitous to Australian backyards that they are immediately identifiable and completely ordinary, even when presented in a backyard covered with junk and an unkempt lawn that is now half dirt. Throughout Snowtown it is this banality of everyday suburban life that contrasts so shockingly with the violence happening around it.

The casualness of the sexual violence and child abuse in the community is the first element the film addresses. Early in the film Jamie and his two younger brothers are having dinner with their neighbour, Jeffrey (Frank Cwiertniak), who to this point in the film seemed like a stabilising force in the boys’ lives. Hence, the sense of betrayal and disgust when the scene cuts to Jeffrey photographing the boys in their underwear, coolly directing them where to stand and look, while the boys follow his instructions with a sad resignation, their passivity indicating this is something they are likely to have experienced before. The scene also establishes the lack of a protective father figure in their lives, which leaves the perfect void for John Bunting to later walk into.

The other key scene that juxtaposes the everydayness of sexual violence is the scene where Jamie is raped by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves). The camera is kept at a distance to coldly show the cruel routine nature of the act where Jamie limply submits, clearly having experienced this appalling abuse before. However, what makes the scene even more depressing and uncomfortable is that it occurs in the middle of the day with the door wide open and the sound of crickets in the background. It is just another day for these characters where acts of sexual violence are committed quite literally in broad daylight.

This scene will later contrast with the graphic scene depicting Troy’s murder, the only act of violence in the film that is shown in detail and for an extended amount of time. Even during this scene a lot of the detail is kept off screen while the camera stays on Jamie, who in a daze, alternates between dully following John’s various orders and watching in a state of abject shock, with the camera focused on Jamie’s face. It is not until the film shows us what Jamie sees – a graphic close-up of Troy’s toenail being ripped off – that Jamie goes outside and sits out the front of his house, where three girls on bicycles ride past, creating a perfect contrast between the innocence of the outside world in that moment and the horror inside.

While Snowtown does continue the legacy of violence in the suburbs films, it would be a mistake to assume that it was not until the 1990s that Australia began to grapple with its grim heritage as violence is a core element even among the more ‘prestigious’ Renaissance films either explicitly – for example, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978) – or implicitly – for example, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Even before the Renaissance period there are films like Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) which depicted an Australian outback community as predatory, perverse and oppressive. The dark undercurrent of Australian culture explored in Wake in Fright permeates every frame of Snowtown. The intensely charismatic and hypnotic charm that John Bunting uses so strategically to seduce and coerce members of the community into being complicit in his crimes have a direct lineage to the aggressive mateship that was depicted in Wake in Fright among the various residents of the mining town Bundanyabba, which not unlike Salisbury in Snowtown is an almost purgatory space.

Wake in Fright, not unlike the various Australian bushranger and outlaw films, often resembles the Hollywood western in terms of suggesting a frontier setting where civilisation is often tottering on the brink of lawlessness, waiting for a hero to ride in to restore social order through violence. The desolate and empty setting of suburban Adelaide is a type of civilisation on the frontier and when John Bunting first appears in the film – revving his motorbike in Jeffrey’s front yard – it is not hard to imagine him riding into town as a lone figure of authority who is going to rid the community of the paedophiles and establish authority and order.

More significantly to the protagonist of the film, Jamie, John is the father figure he has been craving. Confident and charismatic, but also a provider who throughout the film is shown cooking for and feeding his growing group of enforcers, and later even providing shelter for Jamie’s family and friends as they start to move in with him. John is also something of the Everyman, a typical Australian bloke who is comfortable swearing, can casually engage in homophobic and misogynist banter with the boys, and has a laid back laconic ‘no worries mate’ charm. And of course it is this ordinariness that makes the fact John is a serial killer so incredibly disturbing. He is not some malignant external force that exists from without, but he is a product of the Australian consciousness that carries with it the violence of a country built of colonialism and racism. And just like all popularist authoritarians he is able to stir up fear and hatred among the community so that any sense of threat that perhaps once was real, becomes an abstract notion of something external or different that must be destroyed.

John’s power and influence over the community is best illustrated in the two ‘community meeting’ scenes where the characters sit together in the kitchen and share stories about cases of child abuse, with John inflaming their resentment about how the system has failed them by not bring the perpetrators to justice. John allows people to speak their grievances out loud so they feel heard and therefore he is able to get them onside with his plans. It is during the second of the two scenes that John shifts the conversation into encouraging people to share their graphic and grotesque retaliation fantasies. The conversation is no longer about the outrage over injustice, but now about fantasies of revenge. During this scene John delivers one of the most potent lines of dialogue in the film when justifying his action:

It’s an Australian fucking tradition anyway. Eh? We’ve got ANZAC day for Christ’s sake. Whole country applauds a bunch of blokes who tortured men, don’t they? Why do they do that? ‘Cause they fucking deserved it, didn’t they?

This moment is both an affront to the deeply held reverence mainstream culture has for the ANZACs, but also, at a deeply intuitive level, a recognition of the brutality and violence of war that is often ignored in the national fetishisation of our military history.

When the Brereton Report was delivered in November 2020, it detailed a list of war crimes allegedly committed by the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016, which included a sort of initiation process known as ‘blooding’ where junior soldiers achieved their first kill by shooting prisoners. While revisiting Snowtown it is hard to shake the term blooding as it so perfectly describes the erosion of Jamie’s soul. The process begins with throwing ice-cream and then kangaroo body parts at Jeffrey’s house, it continues with shooting John’s dog, concludes when Jamie ends Troy’s life and is consolidated by the very final shot of Jamie closing the door on the audience after having lured his half-brother Dave (Beau Gosling) to the bank to become John’s next victim. As with the case of Australia’s colonialist founders and soldiers, at the end of the film Jamie has been fully blooded.

Thomas Caldwell, 2022

Reproduced by kind permission of 101 Films