This is totally fearless and unrelenting film-making that will live with you for days after watching.


20 November 2011

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Plot summary

Sixteen-year-old Jamie longs for an escape from the violence and hopelessness that surrounds him in Adelaide's disenfranchised northern suburbs, and his salvation arrives in the form of John, a charismatic man who unexpectedly comes to his aid.

Animal Kingdom’s success last year was well and truly deserved. An Australian film that grabbed the world’s attention, it was shocking, brutal, acted with such quiet brilliance and showed a side of Australia – the grime and crime outside of the paradise beaches and laid back lifestyle us Brits adore– that rarely gets shown. Snowtown has stepped it up again, giving us all of those qualities but dialled up even further.  It might be reductive to compare the two simply on nationality, but whether it is symptomatic of Australian cinema, or just coincidence, these two films seem to have similar DNA.

For first time director Justin Kurzel this is some debut.  Not wanting to walk softly into his first feature film he has tackled the story of John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer and hasn’t held anything back. We start with a mother and her kids in a run down suburb north of Adelaide. Leaving the kids with her new, seemingly kind hearted, neighbour, we’re immediately subject to the film’s first forthright depiction of abuse as we watch the boys undress and pose for the camera, moving on request of the man behind it. It’s a marker point for how sinister Kurzel’s direction will be and just how calm he’s going to be about it.

That incident is the introduction to the story of a serial killer. Not anything about the killer himself, but the victims of one of the crimes he goes about trying to punish. John’s mission is to cleanse the town of all gays and sex offenders and tagging young victim Jamie along for the ride is an imperative; a right of passage to becoming and man and not taking any shit in this world.

In Animal Kingdom we begin with the young male lead’s mother dying, and his subsequent induction to a family of crime. Here Jamie (Pittaway) is delivered into the welcoming arms of John (Henshall), a charismatic father figure that holds court for friends and neighbours whilst cooking them all dinner. He’s so friendly and welcoming to Jamie that it’s only seconds before he coxes him into saying he’d kill all the gay teachers in the world, in front of the neighbourhood’s resident out gay man (a completely incongruous, dress wearing character in a town of roo-shooting and bullish men in tracksuits). Jamie is the focal point of the film, but his blank slate characteristics (like James Frecheville’s performance in Animal Kingdom he is, initially at least, unassuming, and unreactive to whatever atrocities he is subject to) mean we can watch the most captivating character from a removed position, making him all the more incomprehensible and scary.

And, my God, you won’t want to take your eyes off Henshall’s John Bunting. There is a moment in this film when John forces Jamie to watch him strangle one of his victims. Letting him suffocate then releasing him repeatedly, Henshall is completely lost in this moment, staring into the eyes of his victim with an astonishing sense of thrill and conviction. It’s a moment of raw acting that leaves you slightly breathless. For the most part he is calm, warm even, but always with a look behind his eyes that keeps you on edge for the entire film.

Combining the film’s pulsating, throbbing hum of a soundtrack keeps your heart rate pounding and your stomach turning. It’s interesting that Kurzel spends a surprising amount of time watching the men eat dinner. It’s almost a refrain that occurs regimentally post-attrocity. Is he trying to play with our stomachs in this film? Perhaps one downfall is that the sense of dread slowly dissolves towards the end, but maybe like Jamie we’re getting made to get on with it, acclimatising to violence like it’s natural.

Kurzel and co-writer Shaun Grant worked closely with the history books to recreate this story. How true to life these relationships are is impossible to tell. But the subtlety and complexity with which we see the men go about their mission is superb. The depiction of the slow growing involvement of Jamie with Bunting and the way a basically innocent boy turns unwilling murderer through fear of one man has been seen before, but not like this. This is totally fearless and unrelenting film-making that will live with you for days after watching. The fact that it is a true story just makes it all the more startling.