Snowtown: very good at being very bad
If you’re good at being bad, does that make you good? Or bad?
How you answer might be important in whether you want to go and see this film. Personally, I reckon being good at being bad still makes you bad, and sometimes it makes you John Howard or Donald Trump. Philistine is about enjoyment – the good things in life that you can eat, drink or go out and experience.
Snowtown is not one of these things. Snowtown is a cinematic ordeal – so hardcore that it’s actually the first film I couldn’t finish watching. I was pretty excited to catch the Brisbane premiere of this film but it meant that I didn’t get much warning about how intense this film is. It really blindsided me, but I wasn’t the only one. Expect a growing procession of pale, drawn faces staggering out of the cinema as the scenes get progressively more and more brutal.
And that is essentially what this film does – escalating, psychological horror. Snowtown gradually draws you into the world of a serial killer in small-town South Australia. Or rather, you get to watch a young man gradually be drawn into that world, becoming increasingly complicit in the vicious sequence of murders that escalates in ugliness as the film goes on. Nothing is stylised, the camera doesn’t look away when you expect it to and the screaming is deeply jarring. I’ve been really enjoying the second season of Dexter lately, and in spite of having serial killers in common the difference can’t be greater between these stories. Snowtown is about experiencing uncensored evil and viciousness, whereas in Dexter the serial killer thing is more of a premise for a character drama. Also, in Dexter you never see people’s toes get ripped off as they scream…
The film is pretty light on dialogue, giving you just a hint of the characters and their development. It’s all really about the two leads – the innocent, Jamie, and John, the serial killer. Both act excellently and Jamie’s responses as he realises what is happening really drive home the horror of each incident. The growing corruption of innocence implicit in this progression makes this film doubly hard to swallow, and the town in which it is set is vividly depressing – everyone is poor and depressed and uneducated. Every scene brings this poverty, both material and spiritual, right home to the viewer.
I can’t help but grudgingly give some respect to the way this film has been delivered. It is a truly vivid experience. It’s light on plot, and weak on character development, but I got the feeling that all those things were not the point. In most films dealing with dark subjects, that darkness is the premise for a story, or to create thrills; in this film, the darkness is the whole point. And that point is richly delivered.
I don’t call that entertainment, I call that an ordeal. This film is not fun, or even clever – just very effective in delivering a lot of things you’ll regret seeing. I encourage you to save your cash, call your friends and do something fun instead. Ignore the inevitable torrent of fawning reviews applauding how edgy this film is, and how amazingly it ‘explores’ evil – this is exactly this kind of ’emperor’s-new-clothes’ pretence that this makes the world need philistine. Art is great in all its forms, but the skill of creating it must be matched by the worthwhile experience it conveys as a whole. Snowtown has only one of these merits, but I suspect that as director Justin Kurzel develops his skill will start translating into watchable cinema.