The Snowtown Murders, Justin Kurzel’s directorial debut is an unsettling and unflinching look at the true story of John Justin Bunting; one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers. Also known as the “Bodies in Barrels Murders”, only one murder actually took place in Snowtown. The rest were committed in several different locations in South Australia over the time period of August 1992 through May 1999.
When this movie originally premiered at Cannes, it was simply titled “Snowtown” and was later changed to “The Snowtown Murders”. The slow pacing and almost pragmatic way in which this movie unfolds and shows us this gruesome tale has caused it to be viewed negatively:very negatively. Eric Kohn of Indiewire stated, “The filmmaker convincingly portrays the evolution of killer instinct nearly to the point of fetishization.”
I cannot disagree with this statement more. The very real feeling of watching this movie reminds us that serial killers are not celebrities; they are very real monsters that walk amongst us and we are all vulnerable to them. My initial reaction to this movie was that it reminded me of watching “Animal Kingdom”, another fantastic Australian movie that centers on a young man who seems utterly overwhelmed by the very bad situation he has found himself in. Or , if you have read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, I really think that is the very best comparison. Rather than just watch a documentary or read the details of the case, you become a part of what these people are doing. Not complicit, but much like James Vlassakis , the young man lured into Bunting’s web, you just don’t leave. You could leave, but you stay with John Bunting and watch as he murders people whom he has decided have committed real or imagined infractions.
Played by Daniel Henshall, John Bunting is a seemingly caring, charismatic man who quickly becomes a father figure to a house of three boys and he’s also the guy who organizes neighborhood conversations about local pedophiles. He has a knack of asking you a question and making your answer the original origin of an idea. “What would you do to a pedophile?” Bunting would get his group increasingly worked up and then they would finally answer with a murderous, horrific answer. It was always their idea and not Bunting’s. Bunting, however, was the guy who got things done. He has a calm demeanor and his beady eyes observe everything. He is the guy who organizes the murders and cover ups because he’s just a good guy like that. Coming in at two hours the movie can feel like a marathon of emotional punishment but I think it’s necessary. You spend the first hour getting to know Bunting and the group of people that will all, ultimately, become complicit in his plan, while the second hour delves into the actual murders. This melancholy, quiet, slow burn brings you down to an emotional level that really allows you to feel the true vicious, barbarous nature of John Bunting.
Primarily, the movie follows Jamie Vlassakis, played by Lucas Pittaway, as he goes from easy molestation target to unwilling accomplice and then all the way to one of the four men who are currently serving time for these murders. Jamie is a very quiet boy who doesn’t seem to have any fight in him. It’s as though he has accepted his place in this world as a victim and nothing more. Although he wants nothing to do with Bunting’s homegrown pedophile purge, he doesn’t ever get out of the situation either. Eventually, Jamie becomes complicit in a murder, but it still feels like more of a mercy killing than a cold blooded murder.
This movie is based on true events and those events are a perfect example of how truly disgusting humans can be to one another. Bunting and his crew tortured and murdered 12 people. These men ( and one woman) died horrible deaths. If, like me, you need all of the gory details, look this case up online. You may think that the movie was awful, but they didn’t go nearly as far as they could have. That being said ,the movie doesn’t sugar coat events in any way either. While it’s not gory or gruesome just for the sake of it, it is unflinching in it’s portrayal of torture and murder. I found this movie to be an exceptional and, at the same time, soul crushing look into the reality of a serial killer. So often they become sensationalized, idolized and superstars in their own right. This movie simply doesn’t allow for that. John Bunting is a diagnosed psychopath who, unlike most serial killers, was not a loner. Watching how he captivates an entire group of people and convinces them to commit heinous acts is absolutely fascinating. He single handedly destroys a young man’s life mentally, emotionally and literally with his powers of persuasion. This may not be an easy movie to watch but it’s definitely a great movie.