Monday, March 12, 2012

Snowtown: Evil, Unblinking

It's my opinion that 95% of all movies about serial killers suck. Mostly, it's because of the tension between their depiction and the reality. Vampires, zombies, and ghosts aren't real, so whatever you want to do with them you can, no matter how cartoonish or stupid. But serial killers are a real and terrible thing, and I think that turning them into criminal masterminds who commit complex themed murders is turning them into another type of movie monster. Which is tremendously disrespectful to people who have been affected in one way or another by a very real-life, non-fictional horror, and it also makes for hackneyed, formulaic movies. If you're going to make a movie about serial killings, that movie should come as close to the ugly, squalid truth as possible. The reality is so much worse than any fiction, even if it isn't as sensational. Serial killer movies shouldn't thrill and entertain you, they should upset and unsettle you.

Snowtown (being released in America as The Snowtown Murders)  is a retelling of the real-life case of the Snowtown Murders, a series of killings in southern Australia over the better part of the 1990s. No bizarre clues, no themes, no elaborate staging of crime scenes. Just six industrial barrels filled with the remains of eight people, stored in the vault of a former bank building in small-town Australia. Everyone implicated is either dead or in prison for a very long time. So the story isn't really a mystery - people die, and the killers are caught. In this case, the movie isn't so much about the destination as the journey. How do things play out? Why did this happen? The inevitable carries with it its own sense of dread.

The movie is mostly focused on Jamie, who lives in a bleak, run-down section of suburban Adelaide with three of his four brothers/half-brothers/stepbrothers and his struggling mother. It's a drab, aimless, joyless life, stretches of time staring at video games alternated with bicycle rides to nowhere. A grim picture painted in browns, beiges, and grays. Mom meets a new man, and he's a pretty nice guy - friendly, good with the kids. He takes a liking to Jamie, and the two of them start hanging out. He's a father figure to Jamie and his younger brothers. The longer he's with Jamie's mom, though, the weirder things start getting. He's pretty strict, hates homosexuals, and enjoys defacing the house of a local sex offender with the dismembered remains of kangaroos. And then there's the shed out back. And then people in their circle of friends start disappearing.

Like I said, it's not so much about what the story is, since Wikipedia and most true-crime sites will tell you that much, but how the story is told, and Snowtown tells the story of these killings from Jamie's perspective very, very well. It's shot beautifully, even when the scenery is ugly. People are dwarfed by their surroundings, the world presses in on them. The sky is often both gray and bright at the same time, something flat and harsh, and clouds loom over everything. The narrative is fragmented, taking us out of time to someplace where days just sort of go by. Things happen, then nothing happens, then more things happen, and eventually the not-happening is as thick with dread as the happening because you know something is going to happen. Violence in this world is both brutal and as casual and matter-of-fact as anything else, an eruption into an otherwise ordinary day, out of nowhere, signifying nothing. Nothing and nowhere is safe, the movie tells us. Horror comes from anyone and anywhere.

Most of it is told in terms of aftermath - with one utterly horrifying exception, the killings pretty much take place off-screen. A scene opens on a bloodstained bathtub, and we know. An answering machine message plays over an otherwise innocuous scene, someone telling their parents they're going on vacation or moving away, and we know. Full garbage bags are loaded into a car, and we know. This isn't a movie concerned with sensationalism, because actual serial killing isn't sensational. It's cold, ugly, and mundane. Scenes of quiet domesticity lie side by side with episodes of physical and sexual abuse, conversations, disappearances, a slow spiral to its conclusion, a door shutting on another person's life, and on the audience.  Little is said directly, if at all, just like the movie tells us things through aftermath, it also tells us things through silence and small talk. This is what happened in Adelaide, the movie is telling us. Here is the good, the bad, and the inconceivable, and nothing will be used to distinguish them because life doesn't distinguish them. People died here, and they suffered, and their loved ones suffered. No, you don't get to look away, because none of them got to either. 

To be really reductive about it, if you can imagine the cinematic love child of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Gummo, and Kill List, then you've got some idea of what Snowtown is like. And in its restraint, it manages to be just as uncomfortable to watch as Srpski Film, without being as transgressive. This isn't a fun film, this isn't an entertaining film, but it's powerful, beautifully made, and a portrait of evil in its simplest, most implacable form. The killers killed because they could. Pretty much one of the best films I've seen this year, and exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about when I say that horror films at their best are works of art that deal with upsetting and unsafe ideas fearlessly.


  1. Cliff, thank you for continually writing informed, thoughtful and intellectual criticism. You are the Manny Farber of horror cinema, and I couldn't agree with you more about Snowtown. It was easily the best film I saw last year.

  2. *Googles Manny Farber*

    Thanks! I'm flattered. I'm glad you like the writing.

  3. Great review of an outstanding masterpiece! BTW, anxious to read your analysis of Xavier Gens' "The Divide".