Almost as extraordinary as Justin Kurzel’s feature film debut, Snowtown, about the 1999 “Bodies in Barrels” murders, is the often-baulking reception with which it is met. Peter Bradshaw writing for The Guardian called it, “a well made but gruesome and often unwatchably violent film” (1); Roger Ebert called it, “distressing and unbearably painful” (2); and Anthony Quinn writing for The Independent declared, “Whether you should go and see it or not depends on your stomach for grisly scenes of rape and torture. Such things are difficult to un-see.” (3) What surprises me about so many of the statements surrounding the film is the insistence on how harrowing the film is to watch. Actually, there is very little screen time given to physical violence. Rather, the majority of the film’s abrasive and even violating affect is communicated through aural repetition and sensory signposting. Heightening emotional anxiety, Kurzel cues viewer response often before the violent act has taken place.
There are four scenes where violence is physically depicted; two involve animals, one is sexual and the other is a revenge torture culminating in murder. The first sees John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) and his protégé, Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), preparing two buckets of dead, chopped up, semi-pulverised kangaroos to throw onto a paedophile neighbour’s front porch. There are few shots of the dead animals – just enough to provide a visual association for each of the “chocking” sounds that follow. Similarly, there is a visual of a totem tennis pole; a symbol for familial activity re-employed as a violent object to further reduce kangaroo body parts to pulp. It is, however, the fleshy sound of blood and internal organs sloshing – which we don’t see – that is most abrasive.
The second act is one of sexual violence, where Jamie is raped by his half-brother, Troy. Shot from a distance, with a static camera, Kurzel allows the everyday sounds of a quiet room and the mundane sports commentary from a television, transmitting to no one in particular, to dominate the scene. The emptiness of the house and the lack of care for Jamie’s wellbeing, to the sounds of his brother panting and thrusting – not even behind closed doors, but in rooms with doors left wide open – is so startling that the act itself becomes more harrowing than if it had been more graphically violent or carried out by an unknown assailant in a more cinematically, generically dangerous location.
The third violent act is when John forces Jamie to shoot his dog. Jamie, scared of being raped again, takes misguided refuge at John’s place. Sitting at the table – a familiar trope by this stage in the film’s narrative, employed as both a grooming mechanism and also as a harbinger for seedy, conscienceless crime – John smacks his lips in a manner that is in and of itself grotesque. The associative aural quality provides a link to the preceding crimes – the sloshing and slapping of the kangaroo parts and also the faint flesh on flesh sounds from the rape. We don’t see the dog when the act takes place, and no blood is shown. We do however hear the dog panting and wincing. We also hear the scratching of its nails against the kitchen floor. When John shoots the dog a second time to – dare I say mercilessly – put it out of its misery, the gunshot is – comparative to the first one – deafeningly loud, and the cut to black – visually violent for its harsh juxtaposition against otherwise seamless editing – has now groomed the viewer, just like Jamie, to anticipate the final, truly violent act.
This fourth and most violent scene is Troy’s murder. Here Jamie is faced with two people he considers family – Troy, his half brother and John, his monstrous father figure; both predators who have taken advantage of him (one now asking him to engage in the annihilation of the other). This is the most interesting and arresting scene in the film. Kurzel’s not quite linear mode of narrative storytelling means we know what is about to happen before the scene begins. Earlier in the film we were shown a bed stained with blood, followed by a bathtub smeared with blood.
The visual is indeed gruesome: almost 30 seconds is devoted to the removal of Troy’s toenail with a pair of pliers. It is, however, the sound of Troy breathing, his panting – aurally associated with both Jamie’s rape and John’s dog – and the metallic clink of handcuffs against the bathroom rail, associated with the dog’s scratching against the kitchen floor, accompanied once again by the sounds of a television broadcasting to no one – that evokes a sensory abjection for the viewer.
This is enough sensory association, but Kurzel is relentless. A master craftsman, he finally presents us with something he has, until now, withheld: the recording of the pre-murder telephone message, one of many that play intermittently throughout the film. The image of a bloody, near-dead man now matches the disembodied voices of many. The true horror, then, lies not with what we see but with the totality of the inferred violence through masterful, chilling sensory affect.
- Peter Bradshaw, “Snowtown – Review”, The Guardian 17 November 2011: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/nov/17/snowtown-film-review.
- Roger Ebert, “The Snowtown Murders”, Roger Ebert.com 14 March 2012: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-snowtown-murders-2012.
- Anthony Quinn, “Snowtown”, The Independent 18 November 2011: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/snowtown-18-6263771.html.