Based on a horrific true story, Snowtown begins with troubled, despondent teen Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) eking out an unremarkable, semi-impoverished existence with his mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) and two younger brothers in the barren, titular town in North Adelaide, Australia.
An insidious encounter with a paedophilic neighbour leaves both the boys and Elizabeth at emotional rock bottom, before salvation appears to come at the hands of John (Daniel Henshall), an affable local who helps the family gain some semblance of revenge and catharsis. In doing so, he becomes the surrogate father figure the boys – and Jamie, in particular – have lacked since the still-raw dissolution of their parents’ relationship.
John appears well aware of the threat towards local children from paedophiles and, through a series of residential meetings, threatens to take direct action. Snitches reveal suspicions of similarly shady locals, and John notes them. He describes what he’d like to do to them. He asks others what – given the opportunity – they’d like to do. John’s violently descriptive diatribes (uncomfortably including homosexuals in his Venn diagram of social-cleansing responsibilities) become less abstract as the film progresses, and John gradually more vehement.
He’s not taken literally of course, least of all by the family with which he has ingratiated himself so effortlessly. A charismatic mixture of twinkle-in-the-eye geniality and unwavering moral certitude, John represents Jamie’s newfound notions of aspiration, as he begins a relationship with Elizabeth and takes the boys under his protective wing.
Jamie quickly begins to mimic his new mentor, finding a voice after so many years of stifled silence. John lets him further into his world and amongst his peers, and it’s here Jamie slowly learns that John and his friends are not quite as benign as they first appeared. John’s prior flashes of hatred conceal the swirling well beneath, and as Jamie is gradually exposed to the limits of what bigotry can cause, his own innocence is gradually and irrevocably stripped away.
The film asks uncomfortable questions about how far denial of responsibility can be stretched; where the line between peer pressure and wilful complicity truly lies, and what people are capable of when confronted with Milgram-esque authoritarian commands to act against the grain of their conscience.
In doing so, director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant have taken these real people and events and produced a work that is profoundly unsettling, breathlessly powerful, and relentlessly brilliant.
A great deal of this praise can be heaped upon the towering performances, and since the three main players are all making their feature film debuts, some of the work they produce is nothing short of astonishing. Daniel Henshall had had prior bit-parts in Australian TV and theatre, while Lucas Pittaway and Louise Harris were both non-actors, before being discovered shopping in the area in which the film is set.
Pittaway’s Jamie conveys a myriad conflicting emotions solely through a face burning, bulging and wringing with bottled rage and crushing guilt; a nuanced, minimalist conveyance of devastating emotional conflictions. Harris’ fractured maternal efforts show her to be emotionally resolute yet effectually just as helpless as her children. Yet it is Henshall who takes centre stage: his peeling metamorphosis of John, turning joking likeability into a manifestation of his truer nature, is – on occasion – utterly terrifying. His flashes of humanity sit at perfect odds with the inhumanity of his actions, and the effect is a truly chilling villain.
With Jamie as the narrative focus, it’s essential you believe in the veracity of his descent – any sudden ‘jumps’, or actions seeming too out-of-character, would be too jarring. Yet the looming, totemic influence of John is always the catalyst, which – through respect, love, fear, or all three – switches the ratio of understandable actions to evil ones in uncomfortably believable increments. Jamie’s journey is made all the more shocking because it is a real one, even with the healthy dose of artistic licence that is to be expected.
In fact, there is not a single below-par performance in the entire film. The varied ensemble cast of supporting roles share the main characters’ lack of previous acting experience, yet (as with Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth) this is a gamble that becomes a masterstroke; the illusion of reality is never broken, making some of the more violent scenes all the more difficult to endure.
Violence in the film is actually quite rare as it is, for the most part, simply implied; however, one scene in particular is uncompromising in its graphic depictions. Yet this is a film where it could be reasonably argued that every second of violence is essential – the audience needs to see it once, to feel the gravity of the situation when told in passing that it has happened again, and Kurzell knows this. These were real people, after all, and the mark is approached, but never overstepped.
As it’s based on real events, the importance of the film’s setting cannot be overstated, either. Snowtown bleeds into every frame, and (as seen in Paddy Considine’ excellent Tyrannosaur) the influence of the location and the actors’ genuine part within it has a profound and intrinsic influence on the mood of the film itself.
Snowtown – as a place – feels oppressive, in its bleached lighting and in the way director of photography Adam Arkapaw shoots it. Even smaller details – like single, unbroken shots following the characters out of their houses and onto the street – ground it in a real time and place, and this claustrophobic sense seems to weigh down on each character, somehow trapping them here together.
The picture it paints of Snowtown will probably not be to the locals’ liking, portraying its streets as rife with rampant paedophilia and moral and material poverty, and the film is, as you would imagine, hard work at times. There are frequent and welcome sparks of humour, yet even these are blackened by the subject matter at hand.
There are a couple of smaller scenes (normally focusing on some incidental family detail) that could probably have been removed. As far as criticisms go, that’s honestly about it. There is, quite simply, very little wrong with this film, and as such it would be extremely remiss not to award it the full five stars.
It’s a gripping, taut and uncompromising tour-de-force, full of fantastically bleak performances, telling a story all the more devastating for its ‘true story’ narrative validation.
If We Need To Talk About Kevin addressed the nature versus nurture debate ambivalently, then Snowtown hits it head on, and does so in a spectacular fashion. This is one of those films, if you’ll excuse the cliché, that will stay with you long after the credits mercifully roll.