Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

I watched Justin Kurzel’s film Snowtown a while back. I kind of wish I hadn’t, as its unforgettably bleak and horrific, a real gaze into the abyss. It’s based on real life events, a series of murders that took place in Davoren Park in Adelaide, Australia between 1992-98. The ringleader of these killings was a man called John Bunting, who pulled several other people with him into these murders, which were carried out with extreme sadism. The film does not flinch from showing this cruelty and as such, is unforgettable. I’ve seen many horror films, but not many films which have actually horrified me. I actually dreamt about the film on the night I watched it, so I guess I’m trying to exorcise this ghost in writing. I would place it with Elen Klimov’s Come & See as a masterpiece that actually makes one feel (to some small degree) the cruelty of the acts one witnesses on the screen.

A reason why the film works so well is that it’s not just a shocker – there’s only one really extreme scene. When watching, this scene felt endless, but the film’s real power is the way that this act is woven together with the other murders and they are shown as emerging from a web of poverty and the sins that accompany this, which can flourish when people are abandoned by wider society – child abuse, mob hysteria, welfare dependency and the nihilism and sense of hopelessness which accompanies this. The set design and colour palette is incredible – every shot seems tight and cluttered, filled with the refuse of lives neglected, and a sickly green seems to predominate and taint each shot.
The film’s central relationship is that of John Bunting (Daniel Hensall) and Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). Henshall performance is absolutely brilliant. He exudes charm and affability but it’s cut through with a sense of menace – the charisma of the psychopath. In the milieu that Snowtown is set, positive role models and stable family structures are something absent. Henshall’s character offers Jamie, a victim, a sense of power and potency, even if it’s gained through splattering mashed-up kangaroo guts on a neighbour’s doorstep. Pittway’s performance is also striking. He doesn’t express or say much, and is mute for a lot of the film, but there’s a kind of buried trauma, an armouring, in the deadness of his expression and the fear and pain in his eyes.
One thing that made the film particularly striking to me was seeing what Wilhelm Reich called the “emotional plague” in action. The “plague” can be thought of as the collective acting out of destructive, neurotic impulses – social, rather than individual, pathology. Myron Sharaf, Reich’s principal biographer, writes:
neighbours to persecute one or another “immoral” person, these people suffer from the emotional plague.(Sharaf, Fury on Earth)
In Snowtown, we see this dramatised powerfully, and these sociopathic, hateful tendencies given full reign. There are some searing scenes around kitchen tables as Bunting lasciviously whips up people’s latent sadism. He really captures the manipulative ease a psychopath has, and how this taps into frustration, bravado and latent rage. “What would you do, mate?” he asks – a gutter psychoanalysis in a way, giving vent to a sadism he senses is there, for his own gratification and self-justification. Sharaf goes onto say that the emotional plague is actually Reich’s most profound legacy, as here he moved from simply from diagnosing individuals to diagnosing social sickness. Snowtown shows this sickness in full reign – how it starts, how it grows and perpetuates itself and where it may lead to.

And by way of contrast, to ground the idea of the plague in specifics, here’s some documentation of a real-life plague attack, taken from the Journal of the American College of Orgonomy – link to PDF.


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