Family Crime Watch
By Kristi Mitsuda
The Snowtown Murders
Dir. Justin Kurzel, Australia, IFC Films
Justin Kurzel doesn’t pull any punches in his first feature. Providing no easy signposts by which to navigate, the filmmaker plunges us without fanfare into sordid depths, based on real events that took place in Australia in the nineties. All the expository information we need is contained in deft introductory shots detailing a lower-class household buzzing with boys alternately playing video games or running around in a rubbish-filled backyard devoid of grass as a seemingly single mum takes smoke and video-gambling breaks. After Elizabeth (Louise Harris) leaves her three young sons in the care of a male neighbor, a friendly dinner scene amongst the foursome segues jarringly. A series of shots composed of each of the boys in turn being commanded by a disembodied voice to pose in certain ways for a camera is capped by an image of the babysitter walking into the family kitchen, naked.
As with much else in The Snowtown Murders, we don’t know exactly how Elizabeth comes to learn of these trespasses, though we later see her running across the street to where the man lives and accosting him. Soon after, the family is awakened at night by the aggressive, continuous revving of a motorcycle engine; the rider, positioned outside the door of the neighbor’s house, his face obscured by a helmet, throws them a wave. So it seems the literal and figurative dawning of a new sort of day when Jamie (a heartbreaking Lucas Pittaway), the eldest of the three boys, wakes the next morning and walks into the kitchen to be greeted by a smiling mother and John (Daniel Henshall), the mysterious motorcycle man from the night before, who immediately charms the teenager with an offer to fry him up some bacon and sausages. Portly and bearded (and often coated in crumbs), John seems a cross between a teddy bear and a young Santa Claus. But from the beginning his geniality is laced with disturbing intent. In one early scene after his entrance, a hallmark of childhood innocence is turned on its head: the darling chimes of an ice cream truck sound in the neighborhood; John buys cones for the boys, the moment captured in a misty montage that registers as just a touch too idyllic not to be ironic. It isn’t surprising when the bottom falls out as John directs the youngsters to write “fag” on the molesting neighbor’s windows with the ice cream.
Only later do we discover that John belongs to a sort of neighborhood watch. Soon meetings are taking place in Elizabeth’s home, where, to her dismay, John encourages Jamie to engage in the group’s vitriolic venting. Longhaired and shy, Jamie of course finds in this new man a father figure (he sees his biological father in church but not often elsewhere). John starts indoctrinating Jamie into his brutal band with a ritualistic shaving of both of their heads, after which his gentle tones give way to dictatorial ones cresting for the first time as he commands the teenager to kill his dog. It isn’t long before he’s showing Jamie dead bodies in his shed and making him privy to and participant in his particular homicidal processes (“Good boy, he says proudly, after Jamie’s first kill). He sees killing as a logical extension of his neighborhood watch activities, conceives of himself as a righteous avenger, perhaps along the lines of Showtime’s Dexter—a serial killer framed as dark superhero in his disciplined disposal of society’s actively harmful. But John’s standards are far from rigorous, and his flimsy pretexts for murder extend to anyone he considers unworthy according to a clearly defective moral compass, including Jamie’s heroin-addicted friend and a sweet-seeming stranger whose only offense seems to be that he’s possibly gay.
Jamie’s seen far more than his share of abuse, and Kurzel places his enlistment in John’s gang along the same spectrum. Not long after the incident with the neighbor, we witness the adolescent being raped matter-of-factly by an older fourth brother (Anthony Groves as Troy) who comes and goes as he pleases in the family home, and we’re left to wonder whether this has happened before or since. Dime-store psychology would leave us to presume that Jamie might latch onto the serial killer’s sadism as a way to reclaim power for himself after being so victimized throughout his young life, but instead the director envisions Jamie’s participation in the killings as a continuation of this very victimization; he’s always shown to be reluctant, tearful, often literally sickened by the enterprise, unconvinced by John’s justifications but unwilling to displease the one person who’s taken an active interest in him. More than this, he seems tragically unable to see another life for himself beyond the squalid savagery of this one; the details of his environmental setup and the film’s consistently washed-out graininess (the sun rarely seems to shine) almost give his downward trajectory the inevitability of destiny.
Although the movie stays focused on Jamie, a burgeoning baby serial killer under the tutelage of a bully, it also lightly sketches in a sad side portrait of his mother, a woman who loves her children in words but not actions. By continuing a relationship with her sick fuck of a boyfriend, she tacitly gives permission to the goings-on. Snowtown only vaguely alludes to how much she knows about John’s acts and her sons’ involvement in them, but throughout the film we see her deteriorate under the apparent weight of it. She knows enough to ask Jamie to send away one of his younger brothers after an episode in which the latter’s punished for we know not what, made to stand on a chair out back by John and hold heavy bricks in each hand while wearing women’s clothing. And she must understand it means something when her littlest and John turn up with shaved heads, just as he had with Jamie before. She’s as forlorn as the film’s many stubbed-out cigarettes in ashtrays.
Snowtown plays in an elliptical manner throughout, maintaining a queasy balance between the graphic and the restrained. Many characters are never properly introduced, and the film gladly incorporates unexplained moments, like an opening sequence consisting of Jamie sitting on a couch in the backyard smoking a cigarette, staring at a white bag tied up on the clothesline; it looks heavy enough to contain the carcass of a small animal, but we never learn what’s inside. Or else the movie proffers images, rising up like premonitions, which we’re not provided a context for until later—shots of blood-stained sheets, a blood-stained bathtub, or later the bloodied body of a boy we don’t yet know lying in that same bathtub; such constant disorientation contributes to an all-around viewing discomfort. Spaces between what’s shown and not shown seem to respectfully acknowledge that there are limits to what we can know, and this suggestiveness is more affecting than the narrative neatness of most true-life crime stories.