Tuesday, February 28, 2012

SNOWTOWN: Justin Kurzel's and Shaun Grant's real-life horror from & in Australia

The tag line "based on real events" has seldom accompanied so dark and grizzly a story as that of the Snowtown murders, a series of killings also known as the bodies-in-barrels murders (for the manner in which some of the victims' remains were encased) said to be among if not the worst in Australia's serial-killing history. Now, two fledglings to full-length filmmaking -- director Justin Kurzel (below) and writer Shaun Grant -- have tackled this true-crime story and come up with a truly devastating, difficult-to-sit-through, too-good-not-to movie now titled, yes, THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS. (The original title Snowtown, would not have the effect on American audiences that it immediately had on those in Australia, who were familiar with the now infamous place).

The film premiered at last year's Cannes Festival, picking up the FIRPRESCI Prize's Special Mention, and then opened wide, immediately afterward, on its home continent, before playing the Toronto International Film Festival. It has now opened commercially or at festivals in ten different countries, prior to landing in New York City for its U.S. theatrical debut. The movie is compelling almost from its first frame and very soon after it becomes increasingly harrowing and disturbing in ways that I don't think either mainstream or art audiences will be used to. Kurzel and Grant have arranged their tale to look and sound quite off-the-cuff, drawing us in obliquely. We know from the get-go that some bad things are happening. But just why and how and by whom is not completely apparent.

This works exceedingly well because it helps us understand why the single mother (very well played by Louise Harris, above, center), raising her boys and discovering some pedophilia going on, would bond with a new man who seems like he will be a strong, positive presence in their lives. If only.

The new man in her life and theirs is given a crack performance by newcomer Daniel Henshall, above, who manages to capture the outwardly positive, smiling presence that covers a dreadfully evil personality about as well as I have seen. He ensnares the oldest of the boys, Jamie (Lucas Pittaway, below, and dead excellent in his film debut) in such an insidious but understandable fashion that when the horrible stuff starts to happen, you realize with a thud in your stomach that it will all come to pass. And probably worse than you could imagine. Yes, infinitely.

Grant dangles the puzzle before us but makes us do some of the work putting the pieces together. He leaves out certain steps, even entire killings, or, together with Kurzel shows just enough so that we understand. And the director, while not shying away from blood and gore, doesn't over do it, either. He shows it to us full-force, once, and maybe half-force another time. Then it's all bits and pieces, for we don't need it repeatedly rammed down our throats. But we do need to understand just how grisly these events were.

We also need to understand how difficult it is for young Jamie to take part in all this, yet how impossible it is --- given his being under the thumb of his stepfather -- not to. Together, the writer, director and Mr. Pittaway make us understand this, and it's because of their fine work that we're able to bear the horror in store. But, then, every characterization is on target here, which says something for the director's understanding of casting (he used a lot of local talent from the actual Snowtown area) and how to draw good performances from all his actors.

From IFC Films, The Snowtown Murders -- non-stop tricky terrain handled masterfully -- opens this Friday, March 2, in New York City at the IFC Center, and will play the Los Angeles area, starting Thursday, March 15, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  It is also now available, as are many of the current IFC movies, via Video on Demand. Click here to learn how to get access it VOD.

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