Friday 18 November 2011

Bloodbaths: "Snowtown" and "Breaking Dawn Part 1" (ST 20/11/01)

Snowtown (18) 119 mins ***
Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (12A) 117 mins ***

Justin Kurzel’s true-crime drama Snowtown sometimes feels like a self-conscious attempt to subvert every last sunkissed image and happy-go-lucky sound we’ve come to associate with Australia as a nation. It opens as a deceptively low-key, naturalistic study of life in a working-class district, circa the late 1990s. A single mother with more kids than space to put them in enlists a friendly older neighbour to look after her boys for the night. Little does she realise this man will spend the evening taking nude Polaroids of his charges. We’re not on Ramsay Street any more, Toto.

Be warned: it gets grimmer yet. One of the teenagers, the sensitive Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), wakes to find mum’s new boyfriend John (Daniel Henshall) chopping up kangaroos in order to douse their entrails over the pederast’s front porch. Oldest son Troy (Anthony Groves) challenges Jamie to a wrestling match, only for their intra-sibling roughhousing to turn to hierarchy-enforcing sodomy. All this playing out to the gentle rhythms of a TV cricket commentary. What next, we wonder – Clive James assaulting the band Men at Work with a didgeridoo?

I jest – you have to here – but Snowtown retains a seriousness of purpose that keeps one gripped for a good while. When John subsequently vows to make a man out of Jamie, heads get shaved, the drug use ratchets up, and we intuit – if we hadn’t already – that everything’s likely to turn out somewhat less than bonzer. Among several wilfully scuzzy elements, the extras sport the grimy authenticity one might only get from holding casting calls in a skip, or by looking under a rock. Upfront, meanwhile, Henshall demonstrates a chilling intensity, giving the viewer the terrible sensation John is capable of doing anything at any moment.

Kurzel’s generally impressive control wavers in places. Those scenes goading actual Snowtown locals into a kind of improvised paedophile-baiting around the family’s kitchen table feel unnecessarily uncomfortable, if not downright exploitative, in their illustration of a particular mentality and complicity. Indeed, too often one catches the film punching at our disgust buttons; Kurzel tools it for shock value, throwing up his hands before violence even as – in one pivotal torture sequence – his camera lingers on shots of a nail being prised from a toe.

Snowtown has forty minutes left at this point, and you come to sense it bashing you about the head from here on in. Most viewers, even hardened critics, have emerged traumatised, and that bluntness is both its strength and a liability: Kurzel can’t resist placing Jamie at a clangingly literal crossroads ahead of the final mise en abyme. A forceful debut, nevertheless: compelling and problematic in equal measure, and a worthy successor to the Ozploitation-informed likes of Romper Stomper and Chopper Snowtown’s closest, uneasy bedfellows in that category of Films To Make You Go Strewth.

In Twilight-land, meanwhile, we hear the patter of contentious tiny feet. Breaking Dawn Part 1, the first half of the grand finale, appears to comprise a 21st-century update of Roe vs. Wade, with Teams Jacob and Edward taking sides round Bella Swan’s baby bump after her vampire beau impregnates her on honeymoon. Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon lends this instalment an intimacy rare in modern blockbusters, edging towards a final-reel shift into (fairly intense) gynaecological horror: if such moments suggest the franchise remains petrified of sex, elsewhere it continues to give surprisingly good swoon.

Snowtown opens in selected cinemas from today; Breaking Dawn Part 1 opens nationwide today. A longer version of the Snowtown review can be read here.

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