Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Horror, the Horror

Some movies aren't movies as much as atmospheres that take over your consciousness for a while, and then linger, like cigarette smoke in curtains, leaving a taint that doesn't ever go away. 

Snowtown, a true-crime movie directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, is one of those.  Based on the exploits of a serial killer named John Bunting that took place in a ramshackle Southern Australia suburb in the early 1990s, Snowtown has the depth and contemplativeness of a Terrance Malick movie with the hideous overlay of great horror:  it's a solemn mix/homage to Silence of the Lambs and Days of Heaven that could have been titled Nights of Hell.  What sets it apart from both those movies, however, is its dedication to not getting everything right.  The movie blurs and does not explain, which is totally to its benefit.  Kurzel and Grant want to give you experience, not exposition or explanation, so the movie feels dreamed up and hyper-real simultaneously.  It's a tone, not a show.  Moments collapse into other moments, banalities and horrors uniting effortlessly. 

The center of the horror, its architect and chief engineer, is John Bunting, played by Daniel Henshall.  Henshall's performance anchors Snowtown so deeply that you often forget he is acting or even in a movie.  Bunting is one of those big-mouthed working-class guys having breakfast at McDonald's with his other out-of-work buds, his big mouth and bravado making him the gang-leader, the chief executive officer of all losers and haters.  He has that charisma you can't really describe except to say it creeps most people out.  Most people, except for the lost, and Bunting stumbles onto a group of lost boys at the beginning of the film.  The boys have all been abused and neglected in a variety of ways, but their neighbor across the street, a pedophile, has taken lewd photos of them, so Bunting is able to use their hatred and vulnerability to get them to be his legion.  They harass the "pedo" until he leaves.  (The photo above is right before one of their "pranks."  Bunting buys them ice creams cones, and then directs them to use the ice cream as paint on the neighbor's windows.  They write "faggot" in soft-serve all over them.)

The boys have a gullible, sad, used-up mom, and their household is chaotic, dirty, but somehow so static and dull it turns into a den of lions without anyone noticing.  Serial killing just starts to happen, as if it is supposed to.  Boom.  Bunting uses the gullibility of James, the middle kid, to his benefit, eventually mentoring him into helping him kill his own brother, in one of the most bracingly gruesome scenes I've ever witnessed in movies.  It's like the bath-tub/chainsaw scene in Scarface, slowed down and transformed into a music-less horrible vignette that has both a gory power and an atmosphere of mundanity, cold-blooded and matter-of-fact yet feverish.  Kurzel shoots the whole scene without a lot of cuts, so you feel forced into being there, just like James is, until your gaze becomes coopted, and you feel an inability to escape, or even to look away.   

This is truly a horror movie at that moment, and in many other moments.  By "truly," I mean the carnage is not manufactured to amuse you; it is meant to horrify.  This is a movie that has such stellar technique to it you can't separate yourself from the surroundings; you are inside the trance.   A blood-hot, animal morality surges through Snowtown's bleak veins.  Kurzel isn't making a movie to teach you anything either.  He's making a movie that hypnotizes you into knowing (not understanding) what being there is like.