Based on a true story, Snowtown lets viewers inside the Vlassakis family home as they unknowingly welcome in what turns out to be one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). The Vlassakis family consists of Elizabeth (Louise Harris) the mother and her four sons: Troy (Anthony Groves), Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), Alex (Marcus Howard) and Nicholas (Matthew Howard). The story is told from Jamie’s perspective.
16-year old Jamie has never had a supportive father figure. His older brother Troy is never around and when he is he’s anything but supportive. A next door neighbor is entrusted to look after Jamie and his two younger brothers in their mum’s absence and he also proves himself to be anything but suitable. Third time lucky for Jamie, he seems to have finally found someone to nurture him and coax him out of his shell in John Bunting, who appears out of the blue one day and ingratiates himself into their family.
Jamie and John develop a really close bond. A ritual head shaving of both seals the deal and a master and apprentice dynamic forms between them. Jamie becomes increasingly suspicious of John, however, as cracks in his charming veneer begin to show but by the time John’s dark side reveals itself to Jamie, Jamie has essentially become trapped. He continuously struggles internally with the fear he now feels towards John versus the loyalty he has always felt for him. John has groomed him well.
Among several themes, Snowtown demonstrates the frightening ability of one man to infect the minds of an entire community with his poisonous mindset. John was outwardly charming as hell but this manifested itself to be nothing more than an act from a master manipulator. He saw an “in” to the Vlassakis family via Jamie and used him to take advantage of a family in need by offering them the stability they so desperately craved. He used his charming facade (in much the same way as the pedophiles he targeted on his vigilante mission) to groom Jamie into supporting his murderous ways.
On a greater scale, John set up committee meetings which he chaired from peoples kitchens. He used these meetings to get inside their heads and influence their thinking. He pinpointed unsavory characters within their community and created a safe environment for the committee members to voice their wildest fantasies about extreme acts they’d like to do to punish these people. It’s clear that the committee members would never actually have dreamt of acting on these suggestions at first. However, the more they discussed them the more publically acceptable these ideas became. It dissolved the stigma attached to them. John also went to great lengths to drum the idea into their heads that nothing was being done about these offenders and that it was the communities’ responsibility to take matters into their own hands. Amazingly (and frighteningly), John was successful in his “mass grooming” and he managed to get a willing group together to help him carry out his murders.
First time director Justin Kurzel hails from Gawler, a country town near Snowtown and due to his personal ties to the area it was important to him, despite the gruesome nature of the plot, to have the film retain dignity and realism. Both of these qualities he fully achieves. The actors are said to have spent a couple of weeks intensely socializing together as part of their rehearsals on location with the locals so that they all felt comfortable in each other’s presence and were able to wholly submerse themselves in the horror.
Yet, despite containing some extremely horrific scenes, Snowtown is not a horror. It is first and foremost a dysfunctional family drama. It builds and maintains intensity throughout without resorting to sensationalist methods (when done correctly, as was the case here, it is so very disturbing). Instead of seeing John rampaging around the neighborhood wielding a dangerous weapon and chopping his victims up into little bits, people were simply there one minute then mysteriously gone the next. On the flip side, when a murder was depicted on the screen, the audience was not allowed to view it from a safe distance — Kurzel ensured all who watched were fully involved. As a matter of fact, whether the beginning or the end, the viewer is less a voyeur and more a participant.
Snowtown is an astonishingly good film, especially considering it’s from a first time director. It sensitively handles a highly controversial subject matter while quietly posing and investigating the question of nature versus nurture — is man a product of his environment? Me, I believe Jamie was born without a murderous instinct and his time with John was the catalyst. You may come to a different conclusion, but what I believe we’ll agree on is it was a stroke of genius to depict John Bunting’s infamous “Bodies in Barrels” murders from the “innocent” eyes of a submissive 16-year old boy.