None of my family would see Snowtown for fear of its truth and no woman I know wants to see it, but it’s a great work that like King Lear transcends its violence and like our coming forth and our going hence must be endured.
In a dusty fibro suburb offering few choices – the world is five backyards wide, with a rusty bike or two, a wobbly TV, mum’s latest fancyman, ghastly spag-and-snag dinners, glutinous breakfasts, quarrels, noise and sleeplessness, a happy-clappy church that no-one much enjoys – a tempter, John Bunting, arrives with a plan to kill perverts, and proselytising among the damaged, the idle, the womanless and the daft, secures enough disciples to carry out his plan. Kiddy-fiddlers are tortured and killed, one agreeing in a bloodied bathtub that he deserves it, kill me, I deserve it, and a kind of puritan blood-cult grows up around this practice. Bunting has the charisma of a good shoe salesman, no more, yet he finds among these idle hands great quantities of devil’s work to do. If you doubted before this the existence of evil – and I certainly did – you will come away from this film a true believer in it, almost a fellow-traveller.
With a method like Mike Leigh’s of group rehearsal Justin Kurzel has winkled out of his inexperienced cast (Daniel Henshall who played Bunting was the lone professional in it) work of such lacerating intuitive credibility that you think it has really happened, and you were in the room when it did.
Should it have been made? Well, the arguments against Titus Andronicus are better (‘Why, there they both are, baked in that pie’), and No Country For Old Men, and The Road. The comparison is with Lord of the Flies, I think, a work on many school courses, about, like this, the unleashing of humankind’s inner savagery by what Iago called ‘a permission of the will’. Wars are connived in just this way by false allegations of adversaries’ diabolic deeds – the Belgian babies on German bayonets, the WMD, the beheading of young women for wearing lipstick in Afghanistan – and cities bombed and young men tortured because our side is morally superior to those we widow and kill. In Snowtown the same thing happens close up and face to face.
If ever there was an argument for tax-funded useless jobs it is this one. Idleness, idleness, idleness and grubby demeaning poverty are what stir these glum inconsummate also-rans to slaughter and cover-up and awkward obedience to a Leader, a petty Hitler with a vision of Decency restored. With jobs and the price of a night at the flicks and some popcorn with a girl they knew from school it would not have happened. If the job was painting rocks white, then painting them brown, then painting them white again (as in the Workfair schemes of the 1930s) the result would have been the same: a life, rather than a Godot-wait for mysterious, instructions with knives and twine and corkscrews.
Kurzel found his cast by hanging around a shopping mall in an adjacent suburb and looking for faces that resembled the faces of the originals, and going up to those who did, and asking them to audition. Louise Harris, who eventually won an AFI for Best Supporting Female, told him repeatedly to fuck off or she’d call the police, and Lucas Pittaway, as the moody near-wordless fifteen-year-old victim/antihero Jamie, who is torpidly hypnotised into abetting the serial slaughters against his anguished but paralysed better judgment, is as good as the young Heath Ledger.
The script by Luke Buckmaster is excellent and the music, especially the music, by Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother, as good as Morricone; and the result is a film that rivals the best of Polanski, and a lesson for us all in economy, persistence, passion and vision.
It stands with Samson and Delilah and Beneath Hill 60 among the best three Australian films and should, really should, be seen.