Helen Garner on Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown and Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards
In 1999, in the small South Australian township of Snowtown, police entered the vault of a disused bank and found a serial killer’s stash: dismembered corpses stored in barrels of acid. Director Justin Kurzel, in his first feature film Snowtown (to be released on 19 May, and a Cannes Critics’ Week selection), fronts up gamely to the story behind this gruesome discovery, but comes to grief in the depths of horror that his own movie creates.
It opens with a flat landscape that flows past as if seen from a moving vehicle. The beauty of its crops and cloud shadows is undercut by the rigid thudding of a drum, and then by the voice-over of a teenage boy affectlessly recounting a dream so repulsive that we are aghast even before we reach the city outskirts and the first characters appear.
In the streets young men stand idle, smoking fiercely, while bedraggled kids career about with a supermarket trolley. Backyards are bare dirt and strewn with garbage. It’s a lost and blighted community.
So when a big soft-looking bloke cooks a meal for his female neighbour and her three sons, and makes the boys sit up at the table to eat like a family, we hope that pockets of domestic order might have survived. Why, the genial fellow promises to take the younger kids to see “that kangaroo movie”, and even invites the boys’ mother – a wreck of a woman – to come out with him one evening to a Chinese restaurant. She gazes up at him, incredulous, thrilled.
The guy’s a paedophile, of course, who photographs naked children. Soon the three brothers stand dull-eyed outside their house watching their shrieking mother rush across the road to tackle the sleaze. In this brief subplot the movie’s abyss opens: the secret sexual plunder of children and its discovery by ineffectually raging parents. At this point, John Bunting strolls into the neighbourhood, whips up warped revenge fantasies among the methadone mums and their jobless boyfriends, and appoints himself chief vigilante. The horrible irony is that he’s a psychopath beside whose savagery the amateurish wanker with his camera looks almost benign.
Dark-bearded Bunting is played with relish by Daniel Henshall. Lucas Pittaway gives a less confident yet still poignant performance as Jamie, the vulnerable 14 year old. Pittaway, like almost all the other characters, is a non-actor found at open casting calls in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, where the real-life story took place.
The movie’s achievement, indeed the sole basis of its right to exist, is the depiction of Bunting’s modus operandi with children: how, by manifesting an expansive but firm paternal presence, he worms his way into the three brothers’ unfathered hearts. The younger two, astonished by his care, fling themselves across his chest in bursts of affection. Jamie, the eldest, is a great passive lump of a boy, stunned by emotional deprivation and violence. The gaze that Bunting bends on him, above a permanent, crinkly half-smile, radiates an unnatural intensity, but Jamie, whom we have already watched being casually raped by his older half-brother, has never before been the object of a man’s benevolent attention. Once warmed and opened by it, he is without defence. With a skilful flourish Bunting destroys the fading authority of the boy’s mother. He introduces Jamie to vegetables and teaches him table manners. He hands the boy a pistol, and leads him down step by step, with many a manly challenge, through the slaughter of pets and their mutilation, into fresh realms of brutality from which Jamie lacks the strength to turn back. His corruption is fathomless.
But eventually a familiar problem arises. Unless you get off on watching perversion and extreme, meaningless violence, psychopaths in movies are boring. They are morally null, and exhibit no struggle for self-mastery with which we might empathise or identify. We can’t pity them. We hate and fear them. All we long for, as an audience, is their annihilation.
So, lacking as it does any countervailing force to the vileness that it shows us, Snowtown loses authority once Bunting and his mates start to saw up their supposedly paedophile victims in his bath. Kurzel drags us, as Bunting hauls Jamie, right into the heart of the action and rams our faces into it. Who needs to see a close-up of fingernails being torn out? Why would we watch a man with a face like a burst plum being garrotted against a wall on which a white toothbrush delicately hangs? Aren’t there things people are not supposed to see? Even Quentin Tarantino had the courtesy to pan away from the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs.
I looked for Snowtown on the internet and found this, among other glosses: “It was a harrowing drama but it wasn’t a slasher pic.” Oh, that makes it all right, then, does it? Am I a wimp to have staggered out of Snowtown almost vomiting with horror, and to have lain awake all night in despair? What is art for? Is film art? Is it naive to believe that an artist has responsibilities? What licenses a film-maker to shove us off the edge of the abyss, to walk away and leave us endlessly falling, without hope of redemption?
On my way home I went into the Supreme Court and sat in the corridor outside the trial of the man who threw his little girl off the West Gate Bridge. I did not want to hear the arguments against him or in his defence. What I needed was to stay quiet for a while, unbullied by ominous music, in a place where a mature attempt was being made, however weary or helpless, to re-establish an order that might make it possible for the rest of us to go on.
Another feature debut, Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards (released 5 May), is a very different movie about a broken community. TJ (Dean Daley-Jones) is a young Aboriginal man with a bulked-up body and a handsome fist of a face. He has comprehensively stuffed up his life in Perth. His only child, Bullet (Lucas Yeeda), lives with TJ’s long-dumped girlfriend Nella (Ngaire Pigram) up in the Kimberley. The kid is 13 and has never seen his father. Suddenly bereft of alternatives, TJ sets out to hitch 2000 kilometres in search of the boy.
Meanwhile, in the remote town of Five Rivers, Bullet, on the cusp of puberty, is veering out of control. His mother is a drunk from whose blood-house parties the children flee in the middle of the night. When Bullet and his mates burn down a building with a Molotov cocktail, the town cop, Texas (Greg Tait), who is also Nella’s father, saves his grandson from the lockup by taking him out bush to a boys’ camp run by elders.
Texas is a massive, scowling bloke in a khaki uniform, a former drinker who sails around in a police 4WD with a gun on his hip, radiating a fully earned authority that is equalled only by the moral power of the older women, the Aunties. He doesn’t scruple to inform his drunken daughter that she stinks. When TJ drifts into town, Texas, as yet unaware that this is Bullet’s father, sums him up in one glance. “When I see fuckin’ shit,” he says, “I know fuckin’ shit.” TJ’s struggle to turn himself into something better than shit is what we are about to see.
The dialogue is spare, the music melodious and undomineering. Only Ngaire Pigram is a trained actor but the performances are superb – subtly controlled, heartbreaking and yet alight with bravery and an unexpected gentleness. Slivers of the story are lodged in my memory: the ‘men’s group’, a ring of grown men who sit in silence, dumb with the shame and pain they are carrying; Nella with a black eye, weeping in self-disgust as she scrubs blood off the walls after a party; the impatient pity that softens her face while she watches TJ try to reach his son; Bullet coming at his father with a shovel, his hoarse cries of rage; Texas and TJ slugging it out on parched ground, bleeding and broken-toothed; and an old man at a spring, pouring a Stetson full of water over TJ’s bowed and wounded head.
Mad Bastards is a work of serious maturity and grace. It reminded me of something that Plato said about art – that it should be “like a wind from excellent places, bringing health”.
Go to www.themonthly.com.au to watch an exclusive interview with director Justin Kurzel.