★★★ / ★★★★
Elizabeth (Louise Harris), a single mother of four, asked her boyfriend if he could watch over her sons for a couple of hours while she supposedly met up with her ex. He was happy to do her the favor. But there was something in it for him. It turned out that he was a pedophile and Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), along with his two younger brothers, were his next victims. Somehow, the boyfriend’s dark secret was revealed and was eventually driven out of the neighborhood by John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), Elizabeth’s eventual beau who was good to her and her sons. Underneath that charming facade, however, was a serial killer who kept his dead victims’ bodies in barrels. Inspired by real events that shocked Australia and based on the screenplay by Shaun Grant, “The Snowtown Murders” was a like a hook that became lodged in our skins once it captured our interests and the more we moved from being uncomfortable, given its high level of violence, the tighter its claws dug into the depths of our senses. Although it was difficult to watch at times, it should be lauded for daring to look at a serial killer like a human being, capable of being hurt or offended by words and actions, not simply as someone who wielded a sharp weapon and chopped bodies when nobody was looking. One of its most interesting elements was the introduction of John as a father figure after it was revealed to the small Australian town that Elizabeth’s children had been sexually abused. John had a kindness about him that Jamie and his brothers didn’t know how to respond to, at least initially. Although the film didn’t tackle such questions, a smart move given its intention was to observe without judging, we couldn’t help but wonder about Elizabeth’s choice in men and if she genuinely cared to be attentive enough to her children’s needs. John was a chance at normalcy and it was hypnotic to watch how he slowly reached into the boys’ cores and earned their trust. But the more they got to know him, so did we. Henshall’s performance reminded me of a young, slightly portly Jack Nicholson in some ways, not quite as honed in terms of volatility but the power was certainly there. When Henshall delivered a threat, notice that he did so without blinking for long intervals as to hold onto the intensity as much as possible and making us feel every second of it. His ability to milk a scene was impressive; he didn’t have to result to yelling or screaming to command an air of authority because his character’s dark intentions and ideations could be read in the eyes. I only wished that Pittaway was just as compelling to watch because he was in front of the camera for about half the time. His lack of experience showed at times which was only highlighted by editing that became too present. The editing interrupted the flow of what could have been two consecutive scenes that complemented each other in terms of its themes of parental neglect in a lower socioeconomic setting. This strand felt underdeveloped. The film’s strength was uninterrupted takes, especially as it slithered through a hallway and two rooms: one a place with a couch and television that offered a false sense of comfort and the other a place of horror with a bag of tools. Because the filmmakers established such a realistic texture and mood for their story, I felt like I was watching real torture and murder unfold before my eyes. There were moments when I mentally begged not to be shown anymore because I started to feel weak. Despite the grizzly images of “Snowtown,” under the direction of Justin Kurzel, I admired that it didn’t show and let us hear everything. This was no cheap horror show. We were offered something better: a possible close replica of what was.