Snowtown

Moments after the closing titles of ‘Snowtown’ finish, the lead actor Daniel Henshall walks to the front of the stage and knowingly turns back to an audience who are sitting back in their seats, having watched him play a terrorising serial killer for the best part of two-hours; he is at the Curzon Soho for a Q&A, the day ‘Snowtown’ open across the UK. He grins, and in his Australian accent, asks everyone if they are alright.

Not everyone who was at the screening that evening will have seen the dark humour in that smile. One member of the audience had already left, walking out after the most brutal scene in the film, when the nature of Henshall’s sadistic character, John Bunting, truly comes to the fore, torturing a character who the audience has no regard for, clearly for his own pleasure.

It is never a comfortable watch, but that is deliberate, and it is terrific piece of film-making by Justin Kurzel in his first feature length piece. Using a largely unknown cast of locals, the film is shot in chronological order, with wonderful cinematography and an excellent score. The drama is unrelenting, and the film so skilfully directed, that there are measures of horror and suspense amid a bleak, heavy subject matter.

Set in an ignored suburb in Australia, the symbolic first-scene, where children are playing, sat in shopping trolleys that are violently clashed into each other as adults look on, is a telling sign of what’s to come. The film perfectly depicts a town that the authorities have forgotten, and where its inhabitants are so passive, they unwittingly allow a new rule of law to develop.

And in a two-hour film, events move swiftly.

Henshall entrance on screen is sudden and unannounced, in the wake of the film’s first traumatic event. As Bunting he plays a character that appears understandably charismatic to a community who knows no better, while to the discerning experienced cinema watcher, instantly seems a manipulative wolf in sheep’s clothing: coming into a film as a newcomer often does in a Shane Meadows film, with a hidden menace that becomes even more apparent as the film goes on.

He soon holds court to members of the community in meetings over a kitchen dinner table, playing on people’s fears, and planting seeds of hatred and vengeance in a largely hesitant community. The film shows him to be an imposing figure, much bigger than his physical stature, with the strong personality of a natural leader with a calculating mind.

While Bunting is the dominant character, the story revolves around the vulnerable 16 year-old Jamie, and his troubled family, who in their own way, are Bunting’s first prey in the film. It is through exploiting Jamie’s mother in particular that Bunting gets a foothold into a neighbourhood that becomes silenced by a combination of ignorance and coercion, and at times, willing complicity.

The film portrays a group of people who are ripe for manipulation, but there is never any doubt that Bunting is just a vigilante leader; his actions are motivated for his own self-gratification: he enjoys leading disciples, reigning with terror, settling scores, as well as particular perverse pleasure he derives in humiliating victims, apparent even when he is not committing murder.

And for any viewer who knows nothing other than this being a drama from a new director, the greatest shock comes not at the violence, but at the start of the closing titles.

MG

With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape European Travel brings, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available  from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.