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film: snowtown – it tells more than just a story

Australian cinema in 2011 was dominated by Snowtown; the controversial cinematic depiction of the ‘Bodies in the Barrel’ case that is known as Australia’s worst and most infamous serial killings. Having only recently viewed the film, all I can say is that it’s the most disturbing film I have ever seen… and I’ve seen some dumb shit in my time. It is not disturbing for any Saw-like grotesqueness or ultra-violence, as Snowtown is not a horror movie, but rather a drama.  Instead, Snowtown is disturbing due to its compelling realism, raw sadness and brutal honesty, as any Saw-like grotesqueness or ultra-violence can be rationalised and dismissed as entertainment. Snowtown is beautifully shot and flawlessly acted, yet it is in no way entertaining. Thankfully, director Justin Kurzel does not turn one of Australia’s darkest moments into a cinematic bloodbath (oh hey, Wolf Creek). I commend it for doing a gruesome story justice without sensationalising it for a wider audience. Essentially, it is a masterpiece. Just don’t watch it with your mum.

For a review of Snowtown, you can find one here. Instead, what I would like to discuss in more detail is what makes Snowtown so intriguing and dangerous. Snowtown is riddled with symbols and motifs to represent the decline of modern Australian culture. In essence, it is a thematic mindfuck that exposes how parts of Australian culture have manipulated stereotypes of masculinity, femininity and sexuality to portray a character’s strength and weakness. Paedophilia, murder, rape, incest and torture are all prevalent subjects of the film, but it is the gendered relationships these components are given that make Snowtown so important.

Throughout the film, elements of ‘weakness’ are attributed as being feminine, particularly via the alpha-male serial killer, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall,  to impressionable tortured teenager Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). I question the word weakness as I am unsure how not wanting to kill a dog and getting emotional when you are shown the dead body of your friend can be considered weak, but maybe that’s just me. To the characters, these were not choices, but rather rites of passage. For Vlassakis to prove himself a man, he had to commit terrible crimes, or else remain a “pussy”.

An important symbol that represents femininity as ‘weak’, occurs when Bunting and Vlassakis both shave their heads, signifying the beginning of Vlassakis’ initiation from complacent teenager to assistant murderer. This act of comradeship meant that Vlassakis lost his dreamy shoulder-length locks, which is overtly symbolic of being accepted into a realm of Men – as Men don’t have long hair. From there it is a steady decline for Vlassakis, as we see a correlation between how beer with the adults becomes weed with the mates, which becomes self-injecting heroin in relation to the body count he is associated with. This aspect of the film angered me, as while the outrage Bunting has over Vlassakis being sexually abused by others is at first paternal, he replaces sexual abuse for narcotic and emotional abuse. The objective was for Bunting to show Vlassakis how to be manly, but instead he manipulated him into being a criminal. To the characters the severity of their actions are inconsequential – as to them ridding the community of moral weakness and corruption (anyone gay, with a questionable history, too successful, too nosy or too much of an imposition to their own masculinity) was a justifiable cause.

I understand that not everyone’s role model will be Australia’s worst serial killer, but while the events of Snowtown are extraordinary, I still see the relationship between the men of the film as ordinary. I consider modern Australian men to be very impressionable. Working in retail has taught me that as long as it will be accepted by their mates, a guy will wear just about anything and pay whatever it costs. While the great debate over how-skinny-is-too-skinny jeans somehow did not come up during Snowtown, there are still valid parallels between the pressure Vlassakis felt he needed to prove himself to ‘fit in’ to his new mentor and what men experience in everyday life. It is the notion that simply trying to fit in with one’s mates can escalate to serial killings is what is most disturbing, especially because it happened.

Moreover, the film is embedded in Australian masculine culture and suggests that not sticking by your mates is feminine. The wrong colour thongs, brand of jeans or cut of a singlet is considered feminine to one group of men, where to others it is acceptable. This was portrayed in Snowtown by the systematic process Bunting used to choose his victims, as they were all “outsiders” who “won’t be missed” and the way he insisted Vlassakis act a certain way that was acceptable to their small gang. While this displays the diversity of our culture, as different groups have different states, it is concerning to see that in many cases an individual can’t comfortably branch out in new directions; be it fashion, career, or sexuality, without first considering the backlash they will receive from other males.

This also just shows how little men understand women, as the thought of women not sticking together is quite insane. However, I argue that women are less restricted in expressing themselves in different ways, as women are generally more emotionally open with other men. To further prove this, I found the Vlassakis’ mother Elizabeth to be a tragic and lonely character. Beyond being shown as individually powerless, as she was too scared to speak up against what she knows is happening, she was also never shown interacting with other women without a man present, and was mostly overpowered by other men in social settings. While the film is ultimately a symbolic version of real events, I can’t help believing if Elizabeth had a better support network around her, she may have felt more empowered and the situation would not have escalated to such a tragic level.

As you can tell, Snowtown has provoked inner-turmoil and has reinforced some ideas on modern society I have had for some time. It has helped support (not entirely positively), the stereotypes surrounding modern Australian culture, and our perceptions of masculinity, femininity, mateship and weakness. If you were too scared to see Snowtown before, this has no doubt deterred you further, but if you have seen it, or were previously curious, I urge you to take a look at it and think to yourself: how different is this situation from what I witness among everyday experiences? Tread with caution, though – the answer may terrify you.

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