A double barrel of laughs: Snowtown (2011) and The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

26 November 2011

Reading up on the actual events depicted in new Australian film Snowtown should shake anyone; the film itself makes a virtue of barely resolved, grimly detailed horror, and it's on these genre terms that it works best, even if it is overlong and overwrought. (As a "pre-script", I'll note in passing that almost every other scene in the film involves food in some way.)

In early 1990s (working-class, critics stress) suburban Adelaide, single mother of four Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) begins a relationship with charming local John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) after her seemingly friendly neighbour turns out to be a paedophile. Bunting becomes something of an amiable father figure to three of Elizabeth's sons: Alex and Nicholas, and older brother Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), whose assistance Bunting attains in intimidating the neighbour into moving away. Hereafter, Bunting is able to elevate himself both domestically and communally into a position of influence, instigating locals' fears regarding a perceived threat from paedophiles whilst developing a bond with Elizabeth's boys.

Abetted by friend Robert Wagner (Aaron Viergever), Bunting kills local cross-dresser Barry Lane (Richard Green) and Jamie's heroin-addicted friend, Gavin (Bob Adriaens). Initially complicit, Jamie is drawn deeper into Bunting's serial killing. The rest, if you're interested, is available on Wikipedia.

It seems somehow unethical to tip-toe over spoilers in a film that dramatises the tragic murder of eleven people by four others between 1992 and 1999, but there you go. It's also difficult to synopsise a film whose actual events are filtered through a particular character's viewpoint - in this instance, the perpetrator who became key witness in Bunting's real-life prosecution, whose limited point of knowledge necessarily limits early incidents to suggestion.

To a point, Snowtown is an absorbing, even fascinating horror film whose non-professional cast look and feel the part of a downtrodden, neglected group of outsiders, and whose suitably claustrophobic camerawork lends an unsettling detail to a mise-en-scène quite devoid of any conventional law presence. There's an inevitability present from the outset, not just because of the viewer's probable awareness of the film's background, but in the ominous throbbing of Jed Kurzel's score, and the matter-of-fact ellipsis given by the cut from an innocuous enough dinner scene to that in which a man photographs naked boys.

Sadness, bleakness. It's all just relentless and overwhelming, heightened simultaneously by an intimate visual focus and the detaching lack of a causal framework, which might have otherwise allowed for psychological probing or an attempt to understand events through this. Apparently, the whole milieu is sordid and sick, its outright evil emerging with indirect endorsement by a morally malleable and intellectually complacent community. If we read self-hatred into Daniel Henshall's John Bunting, it's probably because we wish to; the film itself doesn't provide it.

But after a certain point, Snowtown becomes too long an exercise in "going through the motions". Just as the killings themselves become more and more pointless - though they were never justified, Bunting began his spree consciously targeting paedophiles and homosexuals - the film itself becomes unavoidably strained, and one begins to wonder, as it goes on, what might have drawn writer Shaun Grant or director Justin Kurzel to this depiction other than the visceral quality of it. And though such visceral qualities give Snowtown some powerful moments indeed, resisting as they do the more fetishised elements of torture porn precisely because you can't make this material up, we're unlikely to want to see it ever again, since it lacks the wider intellectualising framework of Zodiac or the philosophising pretensions of Irreversible.

Good or bad, the film surely makes, as much as any other this year, the world outside the cinema come as a relief.

But the nastiness of Oz only doubled my need for fresh air, for before it, I'd caught Terence Davies's film adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1952 play, The Deep Blue Sea - which I've also reviewed at Front Row Reviews. Besides an early aside involving an impossibly insensitive mother-in-law, this film is no Friday afternoon's light viewing, but instead a deeply felt, sobering film that begins with a woman's failed suicide before tracing how she came to this predicament whilst also observing its aftermath.

Several interesting studies await The Deep Blue Sea. As another of its director's post-war period pieces, it can be and has been reviewed as only the latest of the auteur's return to childhood (he was seven when Rattigan's play premiered); another fruitful route might be to examine the representation of a past within The Past, of nostalgia and the crucial role it plays in defining our present-day neuroses; as I watched the film, meanwhile, I thought of how well it loans itself to a star study, in the aptly cast Rachel Weisz, who married Daniel Craig half a year after beginning to date him and a mere seven months after announcing her breakup from five-year fiancé Darren Aronofsky.

Weisz plays Hester Collyer, wife of judge Sir William (Simon Russell Beale). The latter's social status elevated him above military service during the war, and Hester loves him endearingly if joylessly before meeting Freddie Paige (Tom Hiddleston), the ex-RAF pilot whose comparative youth breathes new life into her.

The social constraints affecting this triangle tell us early on that things won't work out well. The film foregrounds lengthy, emotionalised exchanges against a subtle backdrop: the aftermath of the world's second imperialist war, in which, for instance, Freddie's lingering belief that he was placed at the front line so that others might live in a privilege far removed from the battle field is undercut by a haunting sequence in Aldwych Underground, in which Hester and Sir William sing with others over the sounds of air raids and bombing above.

The implication is that the destructive territorialism carried out by the world's advanced states is merely an extension of a domestic policy - capitalism itself - which begets wholesale victims to emotionalism, snobbery, neurosis, want, lust, and so on. Put another way, gross economic inequality - the fundamental - determines the multiple, recurrent notion of "the grass is always greener". As such, the three main characters feel at various moments very real indeed, and are acted with such vivid authenticity.

If there's a sense early on that Davies's script makes it too easy, dramatically, for us to side with Hester in seeing Freddie's appeal over her cumbersome, father-like spouse, things thankfully even out; a scene in which Sir William visits Hester at her home following her suicide attempt is particularly poignant - Simon Russell Beale puts in a magnificent performance.

For all its detail and control, though - even its nuances, and there are many of them - the film still seems too detaching in its aestheticised qualities. Eschewing master shots and exteriors in general, Davies opts for a production design that looks and feels like a self-conscious period piece, removed from the real thing. Nothing wrong with that in particular - it's obviously quite deliberate, and probably determined by budgetary constraints too - but it can often make it difficult to "engage" with the hermetic world. The warm lighting draws attention to itself too - though shot on film, it looks quite cold and digitalised.

The Deep Blue Sea's biggest weakness, besides from that unwarranted smile from Hester in the film's final shot - too much a stretch, given its preceding moments - isn't so much the strangely distancing effect of the aesthetic, but the lingering aftertaste that we're no nearer to understanding Hester as a character. Deeply wounded by the film's end, her capacity for instinctive emotional risks and to hurt and to be hurt came off in the film as something of a truth for me, but I'm not convinced she ought to remain a cipher in the way that she does.