Snowtown: Australian Gothic

I saw Snowtown – on DVD unfortunately – last night. I would have liked to see it on the big screen, but I missed it when it was on there, so that is life.

If you are not familiar with the basic plot, this is a film about Australia’s ‘worst’ serial killer John Bunting and how he was able to commit his murders (12 overall) and recruit the people around him into helping him. It is very strictly based on a true story – indeed one of the most disturbing things about the film is that it is the first time the details of the case were released to the public after 250 suppression orders were applied to the case when it first came to light. Australians knew there were twelve dead people. Australians knew they were killed on the outskirts of Adelaide and moved to a deserted bank in Snowtown and Australians knew they were kept in barrels of acid in the bank. That was it. Until this film.

We see a very depressed household in the late 1980’s. Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) is a single mother with four boys under her roof. Three of the boys, we soon find out, have been raped for the bulk of their life. Most definitely by their older brother and probably by other men in the neighbourhood. The film opens with Elizabeth flirting with a man who offers to care for the three younger boys while she has an errand to run. The boys are photographed naked and, the audience are led to belive, they are raped by this man. Elizabeth finds out about this through a transvestite friend who comes to see her to inform her of what happened. She takes immediate action and calls the police. The pedophile is released on bail that day, and turns up in the house across the road. The message is clear. Elizabeth and her sons are powerless and vulnerable and no legal action they take can help them.

The scene is set for the arrival of John Bunting (Daniel Henshaw – who, you should know, looks disturbingly like the real John Bunting). He enters the household like a breath of fresh air. Immediately he empowers the very depressed Elizabeth to provide better food and care for the boys and he teaches the three young boys to fight back. This consists of a series of attacks n the house of the man who raped them. They smear his house windows with ice cream, vilify him and in the first of many very disturbing scenes, dump buckets of chopped up kangaroo heads and intestines on the front porch. The result is success. The boys feel powerful, Elizabeth feels supported, and the pedophile moves out and away.

But this isn’t enough for John Bunting. A true psychopath with a horrific blood lust, John feeds off the troubles and suspicions of the local community. He holds meetings in Elizabeth’s home where they all ‘confess’ to knowing people involved with pedophilia in some way or another. The community experience a sense of unity in their mutual exasperation as to what to do. Gradually John makes suggestions along the lines of a group of them becoming vigilantes. The group suggest the only difference between him and the police is state-sanctioned permission. John is able to control most of the people in the room, particularly Elizabeth and her sixteen year old, James. Soon Elizabeth is ‘enlisted’ to help John and his posse to ‘get rid’ of Barry Lane, the cross-dresser who helped her (and John) out with information earlier. Elizabeth is now friendless, and in too deep to not risk her life with her boys if she takes action. James, knowing nothing about what has happened, begs his mother not to ‘fuck it up’ with John. The boys are enjoying their father figure.

John soon turns on James however, in a mind twisting game of  support and alienation. John is the only real version of help James has ever known, and yet John is constantly goading James to be a real man and stand up for himself. The subtext is always that John knows James is being raped by his older half-brother Troy. Rather than offer help this time, John wants to see what James has got in him. Will he be able to stand up and kill his rapist? James is given the opportunity to shoot a dog in John’s home both as a sign of loyalty and as a sign he is not a ‘pussy’ – a term used constantly to differentiate real men from ‘fake’.

I won’t give away the rest of the film here, as to go on would constitute the admission of  spoilers.  I will say, however, that the film is incredibly violent and deeply disturbing. It is not for the faint hearted and it is not something that is easy to stomach.

A great deal has been made of the violence in this film. For me, the film handles it in a sensitive manner. It’s a serious story told in a serious way. There is no titillation and although explicit, I would not call the violence gratuitous. You are left with the horror of the reality of this childs life and the life of the people such a depressed society can attract. The film is about poverty and desperation. About a society the police have abandoned and what happens in the absence of education and personal empowerment. For me, this dreadful tale would be watered down if the violent scenes were not portrayed the way they are. They are emotionally disturbing, which perhaps is the key issue of concern.

I wanted to make three primary points about this film.

The first is that it is made almost completely by amateurs. The director (Justin Kurzel) is a first time director who has ony made a short film (as far as I can tell) prior to this film. He used ‘real’ people not actors for every role except for John Bunting who is charasmatically portrayed by Daniel Henshaw. Everyone else, including Lucas Pittaway who plays the young James is a first time actor. It is to Kurzel’s astounding credit that he is able to solicit such chillingly solid performances from the armatures he is working with.

The next point I wanted to make is the passion Australians have for these ‘in-your-face anti-Ned Kelly films’ at the moment. The white people in this country are a nation of convicts, rejects from the mother land for being societies reprobates. Earlier this year we saw Animal Kingdom. One of the most popular television series in the country in the past few years has been the Underbelly series which is a sensationalist true crime show. Wolf Creek is the other now famous film based on the other of ‘our most famous serial killers.’

Australians suffer from an insidious cultural cringe. We treat our indigenous cultures worse than almost any other nation on the earth. Our world-class intellectuals leave our shores on mass and our returning ex-pats always report on how racist and retrograde our culture is. What is interesting is the way this is being portrayed artistically. ‘The Slap‘ is another example of Australians informing the world on our innate ugliness. It’s almost as if the Ned Kelly – the Robin Hood type hero of Australian folk-law is being redressed and a new kind of Australian is being revealed to the world. There is a disturbing ugliness in the Australian culture, and our criminal heritage is a strong part of that cultural recognition. It’s as if the mythology of the ‘she’ll-be-right-mate-stoic-rescusing-anzac-international-loyalty’ is being questioned in the light of who we always have been in our hearts. I think of this as the new Australian gothic. A strong desire to connect with our own criminal deeper selves – the selves we were before we were brought to this god-forsaken-hell-hole of a country.

Finally, I wanted to add, there is a disturbing reality to the film Snowtown that is worth making comment on. The character of John Bunting is able to appeal to everyone around him through qualities perceived as masculine. John is very much a ‘every Australian male’ in this film. Disturbingly so. I have no idea if this is an accurate portrayal of the way John was able to manipulate those around him, or if this is a combination of the character portrayal between Daniel Henshaw and Justin Kurzel, but that is not the material point. The point I would like to raise is that an essential component of the new Australian Gothic is the macho Australian male psyche.

The thought of a football hero in this country turning out like David Beckham is, frankly, impossible to imagine. The John Bunting character as portrayed by Henshaw is very much true to the ‘typical’ Australian male. Homophobic and keen to whip up loyalty around spurious subjects such as ‘who we all think might be gay’. The scenes of Bunting cheerfully making dinner and then placing a boy child in a dress and forcing him to hold bricks at arms length on display as a way to ‘toughen him up’ look frighteningly familiar. I’m not suggesting child abuse, I am highlighting the desire to ‘toughen boys up’ that I know DOES go on.  This is a country where footballers still don’t go to jail for rape and can glass their girlfriend in public, disfiguring her for life, and talk her into dropping her charges. I am aware I sound very much like a bourgeois snob here, but that’s a risk I have to take. Of course we have our left-wing intellectual males who would never hurt a fly and are at home in any country in the world, but the beer ads that perpetually vilify women are not aimed at those men. And those men are the first to leave, as soon as they make a success at whatever it is they do.

Overall I enjoyed Snowtown. Although I have said elsewhere on this blog that I am tired of seeing men portrayed as ‘just bad’, for me, this characterization doesn’t fall into the banality of the characters in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin.’ I do think there is a rise of Australian Gothic as a new style of genre narrative that I welcome as an important part of this countries psychological development. We DO need to bury the campy Kelly mythology and this is a good way to do it. And  – never let it be forgot – the white ones of us are all convicts anyway.