Snowtown

By my reckoning, this is a genuine horror movie.

When people speak of horror, it is generally as a term of derision; we think of a film in which plot is a pretext for a series of increasingly violent, brutal or bizarre sequences, leading to a climax which exceeds all previous scenes to fulfil its viewer in much the same way as its equally-derided stablemate, pornography.

At its most potent and sophisticated, films like Zak Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days’ Later, Takeshi Miike’s Audition and the ‘comedy’, Very Bad Things, starring Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz, horror becomes less about the instruments of genre, like plot conventions and narrative structure. This elite group of films achieves its impact by creating a psychological reality which conjures an emotional reality within the viewer. For this reason, ‘horror’ is the result and consequently, the most aptly named of all genres.

Snowtown is a real horror film for the bourgeois. The director, Justin Kurzel, has created a suburb which is a lot like Harmony Korine’s fictional setting of Xenia, Ohio in his film, Gummo. That film dresses itself as verite, but has something far more subtle going on. Xenia, as a fictional place, clearly functions as a lens through which Korine shows us his places and people. Snowtown, because it is based on a ‘true’ story, presents its people and places as not only ‘real’, but set into the firmament of recent Australian history.

Some of the film’s most powerful sequences also borrow from Korine and his co-conspirator, Larry Clarke. I think the most powerful scene in the film for me, aside from the torture sequence, was when the eldest brother anally rapes the protagonist on the kitchen floor with the background cricket commentary for a soundtrack. It was redolent of the killer from Clarke’s Ken Park masturbating to orgasm while listening to a women’s tennis match on television. 

There isn’t a laugh or a joke for the whole crawl of the film’s screentime. Many of the characters are retarded, appear retarded or are terminally, ruthlessly ugly; and everything is either steel gray, shit-brown or dirty blue. Every house is dilapidated. ‘Abandon all hope ye who earn over $35K per year’, it seems to say.

The way John Bunting (the killer) grooms the protagonist as an accomplice, first through identification, empowerment and then complicity in a shared atrocity (in the book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman defines an atrocity as a crime which is unspeakable because it breaks the social compact) is of some interest. I think the film is probably at its strongest in terms of its poetics; the characters inhabit a social strata constructed through violence and sexuality, frequently with one masquerading as the other. In fact, Kurzel’s Snowtown is a place where men prey on one another. They are targeted if they are gay, and subjugation is performed through either rape or, ultimately, murder.

You may notice that there is no evaluation of the film’s quality made here. ‘Mainstream’ audiences will struggle with this one, as I did; the unremitting drabness and ugliness tended to numb me, leading to slumps of boredom. I tended to zone in and out of the story, finding myself occasionally startled and drawn back in by its outrageous ugliness, violence or cruelty. I certainly didn’t enjoy it, and I’m not sure if I necessarily learned anything or benefited in any way to offset the slog which oscillated between the boring and the sickening. But the last few days, I feel like I have been bitten by one of those small venomous spiders that hide in clothes left on the floor; it’s a sickness that sits in your flesh and lines your stomach. All that unremitting ugliness and negativity, whether it was sound, light or colour, resonating at a range of negative frequencies which worked to suck me into an ever-deepening downward spiral.  

Postscript

I have read the film as a piece of fiction, but the following newspaper report details enough of the history to make me believe I may have read it too specifically.

 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/09/08/1062901998339.html

        

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One Response to “Snowtown”

  1. What jumped out at me here is that you use the desciptor ‘ugly’ three times in relation to the characters and their lives. I think thats interesting. Interesting because that is always the first word that pops to mind in my dealings with the worlds detritus.

    Running poker games in a small town I see a cross section of the community. I regularly come into contact with people whose lives simply astound me. It’s not the violence that seems to pervade their lives – violence has never bothered me it’s the ignorance and the sheer ugliness of there lives. The putrid way in which they speak of woman, the casual and repetitive use of the word cunt as punctuation and the inability to discuss anything beyond dope, blues and cars.

    The much bandied threat of anal rape was never what scared me about prison – it was being stuck in a purgatory inhabited by these fuckers.

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