Directed by first time feature filmmaker Justin Kurzel, Snowtown is based on one of the worst serial killing chapters in Australian history — the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ case in which the remains of 12 people were discovered in barrels of acid at a vacant bank building in a South Australian town in 2003. The killers were found, arrested and sentenced, and the film depicts their lives leading up to their incarceration.

The initial and arguably most important challenge for Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant, also a first-timer, was to decide how to approach the material. Would they humanize the villains, make the film a mission to depict them as more than monsters? Would they drench the experience in darkness and despair, shape it as meat hook social realism, a portrait of suburban hell on earth? Or would they tread the Wolf Creek (2005) route and turn the events into a popcorn and coke genre exercise, a midnight movie scare-fest marketed to squealers and thrill seekers?

Kurzel and Grant chose none of the above, though plenty of dark cross-genre elements invariably creep into the woodwork. Kurzel chose “to build the film from the inside out,” as he likes to say in interviews and Q&As. In other words to make a close and immersing film in which the audience feel like they’re seated on crappy chairs around a formica table cluttered with ash trays and empty stubbies as killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) explains which people in his community deserve to die. If so, mission accomplished.

The film’s perspective is framed by the plight of 16-year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway). If Jamie doesn’t see something, we don’t. If he doesn’t understand Bunting’s actions, we might not either. There is genius and safeguard in Kurzel’s narrative: no room for speculation, no prescribed overarching perspective, no intellectual “exploring” other than what the audience wish to contribute. You won’t be told what to think. But you will experience many things to think about at an uncomfortably close proximity.

With a wide infectious grin and a personable demeanour John moves in with Jamie and his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) and quickly becomes the patriarch of the family. He and Jamie grow closer. Together, with Jamie’s brothers, they drive a local pervert out of town. So far so good. But when John begins plotting murders and erects a giant target board with arrows and photographs on his wall, things start to get very creepy.

Snowtown unfolds as one part social realism, one part kitchen sink drama and one part thriller. The film has an airtight sense of verisimilitude maintained by unwavering directorial focus and an incredible cast. Amazingly, almost all of them are non-professional actors.

The film was shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw with a similar look to 2008’s gnarly indie The Horseman, with washed out colours and a palette heavy on pale blues, greens and grays. The eerie ebb and flow of Jed Kurzel’s terrific score is used to evocative and nightmarish effect.

Snowtown is engaging from the opening scene but the scariness is a slow burn, a gradual atmospheric intoxication that drifts into the viewer’s brain and central nervous system. It takes some time to realise just how toxic the air has become. That’s when the film moves into glimpses of rape and torture, the audience now dug in uncomfortably deep, controlled by the filmmakers who masterfully tread the line between what to show and what to keep in the shadows. Much of the violence is implied.

Snowtown isn’t just a brilliant piece of blood curdling cinema; it isn’t just one of the best local features of this or any year. It is the most frightening Australian film ever made, and a great piece of art that stands on the same shelf as hard-hitting masterpieces such as Samson & Delilah (2009), Breaker Morant (1980) and Wake in Fright (1971).

Snowtown’s Australian theatrical release date: May 19, 2011.

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