Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fantastic Fest: Snowtown (A-)

Once in a while a film you never saw coming sneaks up on you and blows you away. For me at Fantastic Fest, the first film to do so is Justin Kurzel's Snowtown, and Australian thriller based on the infamous John Bunting murders. An IFC acquisition out of Cannes, the film is a deeply disturbing, realistic, harrowing  of the worst serial killer in Australian history, and how he brainwashed a young 16 year old man into helping him. It is also an incredible directorial debut for Kurzel, who paints a grisly portrait of misguided anger and hatred turned to psychotic bigotry.

After being sexually assaulted by his mother's boyfriend, and later on, raped by his older brother, Jamie is a seriously damaged young man. Enter John Bunting, who cleverly inserts himself into the house as a charismatic father figure who promises to take care of him after learning of what has transpired. But of course, Bunting is not the caring man he appears to be. Beneath the surface is a homophobe who begins to slowly come unraveled, feeding fear and paranoia into Jamie and the neighborhood, convincing them that all homosexuals are child molesters (during the 90s, this was still a widespread misconception, as illustrated by the Boy Scouts of America controversy about whether or not homosexual adult leaders or boys would be allowed to be members). What follows are a series of grisly murders, on and off screen, of people Bunting suspected of being homosexuals, and even those known full well not to be.

The film is a bit on the slow side, with a few long takes of silent reaction shots that probably could have been cut down a bit, or at least inserted a few more cross-cutting edits. But the film builds such incredible tension with stunning direction and acting that I wouldn't have it any other way. Kurzel knows how to use  sound to his advantage, and the film is more stylishly directed that one would think. But the film really belongs to the two lead actors, Daniel Henshall (as John Bunting), and Lucas Pittaway (as Jamie Vlassakis). Daniel Henshall must have won a few poker championships in his life, because his face is the most unflinching thing on earth. One minute he goes from charismatic father figure to a man who very well may rip your throat out with his bare hands. The psychotic killer underneath the surface is only revealed when he wants it to be. Clearly a sociopath, he shows no feeling towards any killing. It becomes routine to him, and one gets the sense he might be getting some sick satisfaction out of it, if anything. But as the murders continue, he keeps killing people who are only suspected homosexuals, and even some known not to be. It's a riveting, lived-in portrayal of a killer slowly becoming more and more paranoid, and thus, more dangerous and unhinged.

On the other side, you have Lucas Pittaway, whose performance as Jamie is just as riveting and electric, but more clenched and emotionally open. He is a damaged young man, forever changed by what was done to him and what he went on to do. You see the rage and hatred boiling under the surface in him, but only when dealing with the two men who wronged him. Otherwise, you get the sense he's being slowly brainwashed, but fights constantly to retain his humanity.

Haunting, bleak, grisly, and deeply disturbing, I count Snowtown as one of the very best films of the year.  Controlled, nuanced direction and incredible acting make this one of the most fully realized directorial debuts in recent memory, and an altogether great piece of filmmaking. It's a hard film to watch, but what is there is a rewarding, harrowing experience.


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