Proviso: Graphic descriptions throughout.
Salisbury North rests about a hundred miles beyond Adelaide, a large country city that hugs Australia’s southern coast along a gash of thin peninsulas and inlets that bleed into the Great Southern Ocean. Salisbury North is a dusty, uncultivable burg, one that exists just past the vibrancy of the metropolitan sprawl and therefore just past the lush cultural transactions of a coastal town and the economy that comes with them. In a sense, Salisbury North is just past mattering – a vacuous rural satellite couched between other vacuous rural satellite towns that cannot sustain themselves. And so they are dying.
In 1999, a nation of Australian eyes turned briefly to Salisbury North - or, rather, they held a loose focus on the region, sights set instead on neighboring Snowtown, where nearly a dozen corpses were found, decaying in plastic barrels full of hydrochloric acid. Snowtown housed that makeshift cemetery, the work of Australia’s most prolific serial killer and his gang, but it was the Salisbury North community that absorbed the body count. The stash was found only just after being built in an abandoned bank vault. Most of the corpses had existed for much longer.
The perpetrator of these killings is John Bunting. He is charming and charismatic the same way Charles Manson is charming and charismatic – he is a manipulator. During the 1990s, he sought out damaged youth of Salisbury North, recruited them, and turned them into his accomplices. For seven years, they scrutinized their little community, teasing out alleged homosexuals, pedophiles, and drug addicts before brutally murdering them. Most of the victims were friends or family members of the group.
Now, John Bunting is serving eleven consecutive life sentences for his spree. The men who followed his lead have all met a similar justice – albeit to a lesser degree. The media craze has long-since returned to its hibernation amid the large cities, and Salisbury North has continued down the path to complete dereliction in the regular, familiar quiet. Only a small art-house film called Snowtown has broken the silence, and yet, even with its uncompromising portrayal of the origins of these killers and uncommon, gritty realness, it barely registered outside the shores of the continent, and flared briefly within.
But its inspection of the tender roots of fledgling killers is a masterful thesis on the causes of violent behavior and a clean mirror to view the environmental factors that lead to nightmarish horrors.
Snowtown is a recipe of linear events that culminate into a whole realization. A factor here, and one there, and one there, each scene charts the course of an impressionable teen as he slowly inches closer to that clear point-of-no-return where one takes another’s life and becomes, irreversibly, a murderer.
The story centers around sixteen-year-old James “Jamie” Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), the middle child of a broken home. Factor one. He lives with his mother, Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) in Salisbury North, older brother Troy (Anthony Groves), and younger brothers Alex and Nicholas (Marcus and Matthew Howard). Early on, the three younger boys are sexually abused by a neighbor and photographed nude – much to the understandable ire of a mother who proceeds to justly kick the shit out of the predator as he sits on his front porch, comfortably enjoying a cigarette. Factor two.
The forgotten-ness of Salisbury North quickly becomes evident as the word gets out that an active, aggressive pedophile lives on the same street as Jamie and his family, but law enforcement seems to stay well beyond the horizon. The town is lawless and unsafe from itself, for whatever structure an active police duty could provide seems to be occupied with the crimes of Adelaide – save for Adelaide’s single unforgivable crime of occupying law enforcement with solely the crimes of Adelaide. And so, an entitled vigilanteism thrives out of necessity, but it is short term and results-driven. It does not strive for a systemic betterment of the community, only summary judgement of the accused. Factor three.
Jamie is gentle-natured throughout his experiences, becoming quietly more listless and lethargic as his adolescent coping mechanisms struggle to make sense of his predicament. His younger brothers never seem quite so affected – perhaps shielded by an undeveloped comprehension of what they were subjected to, and perhaps simply functioning on a different internal wiring. The youngest, Nicholas, is lucky enough to be pulled from the cycle by his natural father and carted off to an assuredly more functional home life, though the consequences of these factors are all but guaranteed to manifest at some point in the future.
Jamie and his family are introduced to John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), an undoubtedly likable and confident man who seems to fill the gap in their lives by providing the stability and security of a good father figure. He treats Jamie, Alex, and Elizabeth with attentiveness and delights in harassing the offending neighbor for the man’s misdeeds – often with the help of the boys themselves. Factor four. From the viewer’s perspective, Bunting is cagey and brash, but not completely out of line or justification considering the full scope of the situation. His smile is immediately gripping, and even as he mirthfully watches the neighbor pack up and move away, John Bunting, standing beside Jamie, looks like he is well-deserving of his proud demeanor. And who’s to say he isn’t?
The following morning, Jamie is dominated by his older brother and brutalized on the floor of his family’s living room. Troy, who has vacillated between aggressive and despondent since the atrocities were performed on his brothers, is now factor five. He has broken the tacit bond and become the insidious evil that the family has worked tirelessly to stave off. Troy’s voyage is never explained in detail, but one can imagine it is just as nuanced and terrible as the ones that make boys into killers.
Jamie and John form an uncommon bond in the days following. Slowly, John touches on Jamie’s insecurities and helps turn him into a forthright, confident young man. They spend time together. Jamie, who wore his blond hair long and unkempt in that peculiar way Australian boys do, shaves it down to a crewcut with Bunting, a visual representation of the fresh beginning that Jamie is to take with his new father figure. With Bunting sporting the same buzzed head as Jamie, it becomes clear that Bunting has made Jamie a model of himself. It’s not long after that Jamie befriends a two of Bunting’s mysterious cohorts. And shorter still that Bunting murders one of Jamie’s drug-addicted friends, citing him as “waste,” and manipulates Jamie – not without great resistance – into understanding the triumvirate’s motives and buying into their schemes. Bunting is no longer a factor in the rise of a killer, but a conduit.
In the bathroom of his home one morning, witnessing John Bunting and his accomplice, Robert Wagner, torturing Troy with pliers on his toes, handcuffs on his wrists, and a cable around his neck, Jamie becomes a murderer, strangling Troy as a sort of mercy-kill to end the violence, in the same old bathtub that the real Troy met his fate. Jamie’s coming-of-age is complete. From impressionable youth to empowered young man to terrified witness to reluctant murderer, Jamie endured the full metamorphosis. You can guess where his trajectory leads him next.
It is naive to say that these factors that built Jamie into a murderer would do the same on another person, but Bunting’s terrible genius knew how to find the right ones – sometimes relying on those with severe mental illness, and sometimes, like the case with Jamie, the damaged ones – and force his objectives onto others until they find their footing. That much is fact, and it is searingly elucidated through the celluloid as each actor (most of whom are thoroughbred Salisbury Northerners, not professionals, save for star Daniel Henshall), follows the journey of their real-life counterpart. But a bit of the Australian bias emerges in the midst of stark realism, though it itself isn’t a deviation of the realism, instead a subject matter that is handled more passively than an American audience would expect. It is betrayed in the single activity the boys share that doesn’t ladder up to their fates, besides the requisite activities of sleeping and eating.
At four points during the story, the boys are seen playing video games. In the first two related scenes, the games appear off-camera, and instead, the camera is focused on the faces of the brothers as they play, relaxed, stretch out on the sofa, minds apparently escaping from the gravity of what’s happened to them. Around them sits the opened box of some off-brand console, the bleeps and blips of a substandard mid ’90s game acting as a innocuous time-passer for a group that has not much else to do. A bit later, Troy and the youngest two sit around a table arcade, captured in slow-motion through a montage of scenes at Salisbury North’s lone hangout. Their mother is flirting with John Bunting, dancing. Seeming, for once, happy and safe.
Each time we see video games in the first three-quarters of the story, they are used as a mechanism to evoke innocence and youth. To remind the viewers that these are just kids doing kid-things. The family is, for once, together for these brief moments, and the audience is able to find an anchor in normalcy.
Australia endured controversy with its mainstream video games – most notably, with its once-strict censorship laws, but the disparity between director Justin Kurzel’s even treatment of video games and the finger-pointing of the American media is so contrasting, it’s difficult to ignore the subtlety. It would be barely a leap to imagine an American narrative on the same subject matter producing myriad ulterior motives with the guise of video game interactions. The medium has become a reliable talking point when any case of violence ignites the national media.
Late in the film, as we’re engulfed in the evolution of Jamie, we see his younger brother, Alex, drop down next to him on the family sofa. Alex’s head is buzzed down to a familiar, terrifying crewcut. The cycle has started again. Alex flicks on some late 1990s iteration of Tekken, and he plays the game more angrily, slurring out childish threats and fatalistic cries. It is only at this point that we see a fleeting relationship between aggression and video games – and the root is very obviously elsewhere, but the interaction has changed, as you could imagine it would if the boy were experiencing anything that pulsed with aggression. He has written his own name on the content of the game, for better or worse, and not the other way around.
The “Bodies-in-Barrels” murders were made of unprecedented violence and circumstance, and complex beyond what a two-hour film can capture. But it is in these brief, thorough meditations on a failed society that we’re able to see the phenomena demystified and laid out as an explicable sequence of pieces leading up to the final events, and the lens that mirrors the filmmakers showcases their own notions about the role of environmental factors in the lives of their subjects.
Even then, the neglected community of Salisbury North might remind you that only one person was actually killed in Snowtown.
About the Author:
James Hawkins is the founder of Bit Creature. He's a published poet, dabbling sportswriter, and former Senior Editor of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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