LONDON - Running a close second to “Dogtooth” for the title of Unlikeliest Oscar Nominee Of 2010 was “Animal Kingdom,” a modest, star-challenged Australian crime saga with Greek-tragedy overtones that an enterprising Sony Picture Classics, prioritizing strong reviews over invisible box office, rode all the way to an acting nod for late-blooming breakout Jacki Weaver. Pithy, bleak and shot through with nasty wit, it no doubt flummoxed many a pastel-hearted Academy voter checking it out post-nominations.
Alas, one can only imagine what they’d make of “Snowtown,” a blinding debut feature from Justin Kurzel that similarly negotiates the criminal exploits of a bungalow-dwelling family Down Under – only to make “Animal Kingdom” look positively “Neighbours”-like in comparison. That they’re unlikely to cross paths is probably better for all concerned: Kurzel’s film, tellingly and adventurously adopted in the US by IFC’s Midnight arm, is ingeniously passive-aggressive cinema that places great stock in its own thorniness without ever resorting to idle shock-broking. Less keen on being liked than being felt, it unsparingly lays out the ugly details of its true-crime story for the audience to assimilate themselves; some have found its approach heartless, but I was struck by its subject-countering grace.
If the name “Snowtown” sounds familiar to you, chances are you grazed the world news headlines 12 years ago, when eight bodies were discovered in acid barrels in an abandoned bank vault – gifting tabloids with the alliterative “Bodies in Barrels Murders” tag. Kurzel’s film, calmly and methodically detailing the domestic events that built to this sensationally grisly outcome, certainly makes it clear that there is no other reason to remember this expanse of South Australia: as shot in coldly metallic horizontals by DP Adam Arkapaw (himself an “Animal Kingdom” alumnus), it’s squat clapboard no-man’s-suburbia, pressed down by low gray skies, in which everything appears to be in some stage of dying.
That includes our sullen, gangly 16 year-old protagonist James (Lucas Pittaway, one of many first-time actors in the impressive ensemble), a fatherless idler equally prepared to accept destitution and grotesque sexual abuse. As such, he’s malleable clay in the hands of his mother’s ruddily charismatic new boyfriend John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), whose jocular, motivational relationship with the kid belies a dysfunctionally violent streak. Those familiar with the Snowtown story will work backwards to link this grimly plausible setup to its unconscionable fallout; for those who aren’t, this boldly linear film, scalpel-edited by Oscar-nominee Veronika Jenet (“The Piano”), offers few signposts. It’s a queasily riveting trip either way.
This is the kind of cool-headed approach to real-world horrors that is routinely praised for being courageous, even when certain films skimp on social or emotional detail (another of this year’s Cannes talking points, Markus Schleinzer’s smugly bloodless “Michael,” comes to mind), so it’s a relief that Kurzel is as interested in community, and the everyday corruption thereof, as he is in the bloodier facts of the case.
In constructing a wider network of social decay, Kurzel extracts precise, flavorful performances from his inexperienced cast, his leads chief among them: Pittaway is impassive but never emotionally vague, while the bearish Henshall (the lone pro in the cast, though making his first film appearance) switches track from chummy to volatile with unnerving fluency. Best of all, perhaps, is Louise Harris: reportedly plucked from a supermarket to play James’s indifferent yet leery mother, her reality-weathered face deftly keeps in play questions of how much the character knows, or wants to. A handful of variously induced miscreants committed the obscene crimes that give “Snowtown” its purpose; in this savagely accomplished and serenely gutting film, however, it takes a village.
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