I watched a little Australian film from 2011 called Snowtown about three or four months ago … once. And I haven’t summed up the courage to watch it again.
Snowtown is probably the most psychologically dark film I’ve ever seen. If we had to put a genre label on it then we’d likely call it a “serial killer thriller / drama”, though I think of it more as “a challenging document of how savage and depraved humans can become given sufficient paranoia and negative peer pressure”.
I deliberately didn’t read up about the real Snowtown Murders before watching the film. This only made that first viewing all the more unpleasant almost to the point of being unwatchable. Since I’m recommending the film here on its intellectual and social commentary merits rather than commercial appeal (frankly, I find it hard to see any emotional enjoyment to be had from the film) I’m going to give some basic plot spoilers. If you want the full psychologically disturbing impact of seeing the film then stop reading now. If you want to go into the film with a little emotional preparation read on.
Snowtown attempts to tell the story of how Australian serial killer John Bunting persuaded a handful of people to assist him in torturing and murdering 12 people over a seven year period. The “justification” as largely perceived by the group came from the notion that the victims were paedophiles, but with a specific emphasis on homosexual paedophilia. As the years go on the group begin preying on others within their own group and targeting victims for much more obscure reasons, such as them being “junkies”, “yuppies”, “mentally hanicapped” or “gay”.
Though Snowtown is very well acted, the strong Australian accents and sometimes vague dialogue make the exact events a little hard to follow at times, though this sort of works in that the story is told primarily from the POV of one of the youngest members of the group, James Vlassakis, who was gradually groomed against his will into taking part in the murders. Our knowledge of exactly what is going on is largely restricted to his awareness. This results in a story structure that prevents us from witnessing any of the murders until near the end of the film.
After watching I did a little reading up on the real case, not in a great deal of depth, but enough to ascertain that much of what we witness in the film is speculative, though certainly believable. The murders themselves were of course real, as was much of the evidence of how the victims died, but accounts of how Bunting persuaded his peers to engage in acts of sadism and murder are based on hearsay from the surviving group members. It’s possible that those witnesses played with the truth to deflect blame to one another. The forms of torture administered to some of these victims were so cruel and sadistic that it’s hard to believe that any “normal” person could engage in them, even under strong peer pressure and even against their worst enemies … but the facts of the Snowtown case strongly challenge that wishful assumption. Though I have no desire to describe the grizzly details of the murders, I will say that having already done a lot of research on the subjects of sadism and serial murder while scripting my short film The Victim, I thought I’d read the worst, but this case shocked me further.
Naturally, the film Snowtown does not show us the worst acts committed against the victims. If it did it would be correctly condemned and banned universally. We only witness one of the murders, that of Troy Youde, but what we see itself is disturbing enough because the scene is unnecessarily prolonged in my opinion. I also found it strange that the film shows Troy sexually abusing his younger half-brother James (the protagonist) early in the film. This apparent sexual abuse may have just been hearsay and false justification in the real case, but the film takes it as gospel and shows it. The same also applies to the apparent abuse of James by his Mother’s partner early in the film. Being that James was key witness during the trial of Bunting and his accomplices, and probably with an interest in distancing himself from legal responsibility, I have a question mark on these aspects of the film.
An important film
Historical accuracies aside, Snowtown hits us hard with some important facts about the human condition and some key failings of modern society. This wasn’t a group of born killers. They seem to have just been average people who were led down a very dark path by a cunning psychopath. How much each of them were dragged unwillingly along that path and how much they enthusiastically went of their own free will is open to debate.
It’s also debatable whether John Bunting was the sole influence on the group’s desire to kill. Their perceived justification that they were cleansing society of undesirables, especially paedophiles, was not unique to Bunting or the group. Pathological hatred of paedophiles is extremely common – a subject upon which many people today refuse to entertain notions of mental illness and broader sociological cause, preferring instead an attitude of “lock ’em up and throw away the key”, “execute them” or “make them die slowly”. I witnessed this mentality in 1993 when I was living within a short walking distance of the railway where three year old James Bulger was tortured and murdered by two ten year old boys. The local community was so seething with anger that anyone who was seen being detained for questioning by the police, even when no charges were made against them, was consequentially harassed and threatened. Some families had to be relocated. Hundreds of people showed up outside the courts during trial to scream their hatred and desire for a lynching, but the vans they thought contained the boys were decoys. It was the witch hunt mentality all over again.
Having worked in a paedophile halfway house several years ago, I had a chance to meet and observe several paedophiles in person. I encountered the pathological lying, denial of responsibility, selfishness, immaturity, and social inadequacy that often accompanies these people, but at the end of the day they are people and each one has his or her own unique personality. They’re not always the classic predatory types depicted in the media and, in conversation, many of them express confusions about their own condition in relation to a society in which pre-pubescant girls are seen in the media and on the streets dressing prevocatively.
Snowtown shows us that those who most scream for the blood of paedophiles, or any other group that happens to be hated at a particular point in history, are often guilty of being the very thing they claim to despise. The gang of sadists in this film commit acts that are far crueler than most paedophiles ever get near to committing. A visual hint of this is present in two scenes. When Troy sodomizes his younger brother James, he pins James’ face to the floor. After Troy has been tortured and murdered, James having interrupted the torture to administer a mercy killing, James is traumatized by the experience. Bunting then pins James’ head against a car window as he lectures him about toughening up and the supposed justifcation of their horrific act. James has a new abuser.
Snowtown is probably too unsettling to be nominated for Oscars or widely viewed by the general public. It is bleak, bleak, bleak and offers no reassurance or comfort to the viewer. Despite some strong reviews, I suspect the film will fade into the background of cinematic history, only to re-emerge if and when society is ready to deal with the issues it raises.