A scene from SnowtownIt doesn’t say “based on a true story” in the opening credits, but mention Snowtown to anyone in Australia and they’ll know to what you’re referring: the “Bodies in Barrels” murders. In 1999, four men were charged in the murders of 11 people over a seven-year period. Most of the bodies were hidden in barrels in an old bank building and two were buried in a backyard.

Pedophilia is an alarming problem in the suburban neighbourhood outside of Snowtown, and it appears Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) has spent much of his life as its victim. When it’s brought to light a friendly neighbour is being too friendly with Elizabeth’s boys, the community is outraged but powerless. Then John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) appears, vowing to rid the area of negative influences – only no one realizes how literal he’s being. John embeds himself in Elizabeth’s family, becoming their hero and enveloping Jamie in his web of violence and murder.

Henshall is surprisingly the only professional actor in the film; the remainder of the characters were casted in and around the real-life town, which is also director Justin Kurzel’s hometown. As a result, explained Kurzel, they really listened to the other people in the scene, providing fantastic reaction shots that illustrate the narrative’s tragedy and emotion. Still, much of the “acting” is done by Henshall, as he leads the majority of scenes in the desired direction, while the others respond quite naturally. Notably, while most of the other performers flit in and out of scenes, Pittaway is outstanding in his extensive co-star role. He doesn’t say a lot, but his expressions are incredibly sincere, providing an outlet for the empathy emanating from the audience.

In addition to wonderful long takes, the image is grainy, creating a fittingly stark look that matches the bleakness of the story. The corruption of Jamie and his younger brothers begins slowly as John tutors the boys in harassing their molester until he moves out of their neighbourhood. But he takes a special interest in Jamie, possibly identifying a boy that can be easily manipulated, recognizing his complacency to more than one abuser. John is precisely the type of predator he supposedly wants Jamie to be able to protect himself from – his mode of gratification is simply different. The other unusual component of this crime is it was committed by a group of four serial killers rather than just one.

The narrative is incredibly intimate and visceral. When Jamie is forced to participate in his first murder, the camera squeezes the viewer into the tiny torture room to watch the killers’ and victim’s faces. Though the film glosses over the timeline and doesn’t clearly investigate each murder, it does thoroughly explore the dynamics of how a psychopath like John could accomplish what he did in this town.

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