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Film Review: Snowtown

21st November 2011

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I'm not usually one to judge a book by its cover (apart from maybe My Booky Wook), but the number of laurel leaves and accolades on the flyers and posters I'd seen leading up to the press screening of Justin Kurzel's debut, Snowtown, meant I couldn't help it - I knew Snowtown would be a good film.

But a good film doesn't always provide the viewer with an enjoyable experience and it's important to make that distinction with a film as solemn and black as Snowtown. It is not an easy 120 minutes to sit through.

The film follows sixteen-year-old Jamie, who lives in a long-forgotten suburb in northern Adelaide with his mother and two younger brothers.

Jamie yearns for an escape from the violent and hopeless life he lives, and his redemption is provided by John (played by the incredible Daniel Henshall), a man with a magnetic personality that draws Jamie ever closer and provides a little more protection and stability for his family with every step that Jamie takes.

But as has always happened in Jamie's life, his escape rope simply takes him out of one pit and into another and the pit he finds himself in with John is deeper, darker and more fetid than any.

"Director Justin Kurzel is originally from Gawler, not far from where the Snowtown murders took place. A first film is always a huge endeavour, but particularly with his personal ties to the area, Justin wanted to give the film a dignity," said the press release I flicked through before the film started.

Quite how Kurzel successfully manages such dignity with a film that portrays the most undignified aspects of human life is an amazing feat, one which is beyond me. He also takes the audience on a thoroughly logical journey of Jamie's descent that leaves you wondering if you would have done anything differently.

Kurzel's ability to escalate tension is quite disturbing. I have often heard people comment on how sick the minds of the creators of gore-porn films such as Saw must be (which surely are only as sick as the minds of people that pay money to go and watch them), but what's far more frightening is Kurzel's apparent understanding of the human psyche and his subsequent ability to manipulate it to the point of genuine fear and apprehension.

This ability would undoubtedly not have come to fruition if it weren't for Daniel Henshall - a man who you would definitely not want to share a pint with down the pub after enduring his stunning performance.

And enduring is the correct word to use - you don't watch Snowtown. You endure it. One particular scene containing animal cruelty caused one audience member to leave the screening, and a bathroom murder scene (which is mostly just audio), had me watching through my fingers and made me shift in my seat from distress countless times.

There have been many spurious comparisons between Snowtown and David
Michod's Animal Kingdom, seemingly because both are Australian crime dramas. While Animal Kingdom is also an essential watch, Snowtown is an altogether different beast.

Snowtown's best and worst features are the same thing - the terrible nature of human behaviour.

Unfortunately, many people will be put off by how dark Snowtown is and will probably call it voyeuristic. It's tempting to say that it is voyeuristic, but the honesty with which the story is told is plain for anyone to see, which is what exemplifies it from such a criticism.

Oscar Wilde once said "the books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."

And boy, does Snowtown do a good job of showing us our own shame.

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