I’m not normally a fan of horror movies. Even when they’re well-executed, they tend to be all surface and no depth; they tell us nothing about the human experience beyond the sensation of fear and our capacity for cruelty, which isn’t something many of us need to be reminded of. Without exploration, without an attempt at a conceptual hook or the ability to tell us what we’re seeing really means, it all seems like a shallow exercise: a big-budget version of torturing animals for sport. Serial killer movies are usually just as bad or worse: facile attempts at blending our obsession with celebrity with our desire to tease out the darkest corners of our psyche for cheap thrills. For every biopic of an infamous monster that’s well-executed, there’s a dozen that are exploitative trash, dressing up human misery in a Jason Voorhees costume.
Of course, this is a generalization, and there are obviously a number of worthwhile exceptions, even to the dreary serial killer subgenre, which is usually populated by the dregs, both in terms of subject and chronicler. I just finished watching The Snowtown Murders, an Australian true-crime flick from a few years back based on the the worst serial killer in the country’s history. This thing really caught me by surprise; I guess it made a bit of a stir at Cannes when it first came out, but I never heard of it before. I don’t remember where I saw it described as a ‘socialst-realist horror film’, but that’s about the size of it; it’s a complete turnaround from most serial killer movies, and rather impressive for it.
The main character is a directionless kid named Jamie from a fragmented family whose brothers are lawless louts who treat him like shit, and whose mother has, to put it mildly, terrible taste in men; he’s wonderfully portrayed by a kid named Lucas Pittaway who gives the role the right combination of deadened numbness and suppressed emotion. His mother eventually falls in with a guy named John (Daniel Henshall, the only professional actor in the bunch — the rest are nonprofessional locals from the area the murders actually took place). Henshall is charismatic and manipulative, but not in the Hannibal-style supervillain way; he’s just cunning enough to be able to read people and just smooth enough to know how to play off of people’s worst fears and prejudices. Otherwise, he’s just an opportunistic nobody. He ingratiates himself into the community by manipulating genuine fears of pedophiles and sexual predators, and at first, it seems like these are his only victims, which is how he attracts Jamie into his circle, but by the time the kid figures out he’s not so much a righteous vigilante as a hustler and sadist who’ll go after any victim he figures won’t be deeply missed, it’s too late. (His main henchman, played by another amateur named Aaron Viergever, is absolutely terrifying just because he’s such a blank, cruel-faced enigma; I don’t think he’s got a word of dialogue, but every scene he’s in, he just leaks cruelty and menace.)
There’s not a lot of on-screen violence or gore (though what there is is pretty disturbing); what really sells the movie is the hand-held camera work, you-are-there location filming in a dismal and run-down small Australian town, and preoccupation with how these horrors occurred because they took place in a community that nobody much cared about. John is keenly aware of this and uses the lack of attention from authorities and government to get the locals on his side; Jamie feels it too, and it’s what keeps him without a lot of realistic options to stop the murders once they start rolling. It gives nobody a really easy way out from a moral perspective; at first, you almost feel sympathetic when John helps drive a pedophile out of the neighborhood, but his crusade soon takes in homosexuals (all the more creepy because he’s abetted by a local character, a flamboyantly gay survivor who implicates lots of his fellow gays as sexual predators — and it’s never clear if he’s telling the truth or just lying to work out some personal vendettas of his own, though both possibilities are suggested) and people he considers ‘weak’, and he even plays up his brutality as part of a noble Australian tradition of manly duty. Most of all, you see a town in which people, abandoned by proper society, come together to help each other in times of need, but are also very quick to overlook excess against people they’ve decided are no longer decent members of their in-group. This all plays out quietly and without preaching, as eventually, the way the killers encroach on mainstream society (targeting an intellectual young man with roots outside the community instead of the usual castoffs, losers, and damaged people; trying to scam the government for the social security and disability payments of their victims; renting a bank building in a nicer part of town to store the remains) leads to their downfall.
The director, Justin Kurzel — since responsible for a very good, if not great, adaptation of Macbeth and soon to release a big-budget version of the Assassin’s Creed video game, which fills me with a sense of nameless dread — apparently had a lot of trouble getting the details of the case at first, because it was one of the most controversial trials in Australian history, and there were hundreds of suppression orders to get through. (Part of the reason that Viergever’s character is such an enigma is that his role in the murders is still highly classified by the courts.) He managed to get a lot of them lifted, but there’s still a lot of unanswered questions by the movie’s end. I wouldn’t call it great — it’s got some problems that are both unique to the movie and typical of the genre — but I’d recommend it pretty highly. It’s a remarkable take on some tired territory, never coming off as exploitative and managing to get some pretty interesting social insights from a genre not exactly known for them.