A Neighbourhood Watch Nightmare: Snowtown

A Neighbourhood Watch Nightmare: Snowtown

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Warp Films Australia

Release date: November 18th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 119 minutes

Country of origin: Australia

Director: Justin Kurzel
Writer: Shaun Grant

Cast: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris

There’s an old saying that if you drop a frog into boiling water it will jump out, but if you put the frog into cool water, and heat the pan, the frog will boil to death. This is easy enough to apply to our lives at the best of times, as we ignore the little things that get in the way so we can carry on, but all the more appropriate when the going gets tough.

Being the victim of bullying is never easy. It’s difficult to admit that you need help, embarrassing to realise that you can’t deal with it on your own, and that’s on top of whatever your tormentors are doing to you. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no one to turn to, and no escape, for the world to become so warped so that I would act out in a way unusual to myself.

Snowtown tells the story of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), who became involved in the infamous Snowtown murders whilst he was still a teenager. Between 1992 to 1999, 11 murders were committed by John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), Vlassakis’s mother Elizabath’s (Louise Harris) boyfriend, and his accomplices.


The film follows Jamie in the run up to his involvement in the murders.

It tackles some tough issues, with Kurzel trying to find the root cause to his characters’ actions. Jamie is a damaged character, sexually abused by his neighbour and his older brother, no friends to speak of, and no visible father figure. The social deprivation of their lives is evident, their poverty miserable, their disenfranchisement is intense.

As a community, they don’t trust the police. Bunting spearheads a vigilante group to drive Jamie’s abuser out of town after he isn’t jailed, holding meetings in the kitchen to discuss the next steps. It soon takes a more sinister turn, the group split over Bunting’s extreme violent tendencies. What begins as a community effort to protect their children decays into homophobic vigilantism which had me squirming in my seat.

With the script stuffed full of violence and emotional turmoil, Snowtown really needed to pull out the stops with it’s performances, and they do not disappoint. Daniel Henshall is charming and charismatic as Bunting, but turns on a dime to become abusive and horrifying. His performance is so scary because it’s believable. If we were in Jamie’s position, with his experiences and problems, how would we act differently?


His anguish is palpably portrayed by Pittaway, but he can’t seem to escape Bunting’s clutches. Their relationship is undoubtedly supportive at times, Bunting keeps Jamie from using more heroin, feeds him home-cooked meals, and gives him space away from his abusive brother, a necessity in pulling him into the murderous fold. This makes for an uncomfortable viewing, as we benefit from knowing Bunting’s flipside, and can only predict the damage he will cause in Jamie’s life.

Harris gave a standout performance too, as a mother desperate to protect her children but unable to do so. Snowtown was her first acting role, after being spotted by Kurzel in a deli. She brought an honesty to the role, and delivered a devastating performance without hamming it up.

The colours in the film are cold and bleak, the music is sparse. The film isn’t decorated for our comfort, Kurzel doesn’t offer us a break from the grim reality of his film. He simply presents us with reprehensible human behaviour. He isn’t judgemental, I felt sympathetic towards Elizabeth and Jamie, and couldn’t even find it in myself to despise Bunting completely.

Snowtown makes for an uncomfortable, violent, gruesome watch. It’s tense, compelling and well made. It’s not what you could call enjoyable, but it’s an excellent piece of cinema if your stomach is strong enough.

About Frances Taylor

Frances Taylor

Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).

When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.

She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.