WINNER OF THE 2011 IVAN HUTCHINSON AWARD FOR WRITING ON AUSTRALIAN FILM FROM THE AUSTRALIAN FILM CRITICS ASSOCIATION
Australians love a battler. Oft touted as the national type, the battler’s spirit has been invoked in the guise of Howard’s “ordinary Australians” or Gillard’s “working families”. From both sides of the political fence, the battler personifies the Protestant work ethic, knowing the importance of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone in the pursuit of personal salvation. The battler is, in short, the hard-working everyman, persevering in the face of adversity, eternally on the cusp of the Australian Dream – a double brick veneer in the suburbs, small business ownership and a nuclear family who spend their weekends frolicking by the man-made lakes of Caroline Springs.
From our rural origins to our suburban present, the battler has prevailed, too, as a central figure in Australian cinema. Presumably the corollary of our colonial history, Australia’s cinema, like many of our cultural outputs, is still preoccupied with the idea of capturing and defining what constitutes our national identity. Spanning across Australian period films—the shearers of Sunday Too Far Away, the stockman of The Man from Snowy River and the ANZACs of Gallipoli—to the ockers of Ozploitation sex romps like Stalk and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, to suburban comedies such as Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle, the battler has remained, in various permutations, the hero of our cultural imaginings.
But somewhere along the line, Australian cinema lost sight of true battlers like the Kerrigans—the simple folk with modest aspirations. During the 1990s, questions of national identity dominated the transition from the Keating to the Howard years, with issues like multiculturalism and indigenous rights at the forefront of political discussion. While Howard held up the battler as the national archetype, whom he defined as “somebody who’s not earning a huge income but… who is trying to better themselves”, in Australian cinema the battler turned against itself. A new kind of anti-hero emerged, the terrifying product of socio-economic disenfranchisement and the exclusion from Howard’s Australian Dream. In films like Romper Stomper, Idiot Box and The Boys, a genre that I’d like to term the ‘working-class crime film’ was born, simultaneously praised for their “authentic” representations of working-class life and lambasted for their lavish shows of violence. Here, the battler became a psychopath, the suburbs rendered as a real-life dystopia from whence these nightmarish characters sprang forth.
Just when we thought the genre might have exhausted itself after 2000’s Chopper, a new spate of working-class crime films emerged with last year’s Animal Kingdom and the recent Snowtown—a film so claustrophobic, bleak and brutal that it takes the genre to its zenith. These two films have received more attention than most other Australian cinema in recent years. Animal Kingdom cleaned up at the Australian Film Industry Awards (with a record-breaking 18 nominations and 10 wins) and received the Jury Prize for Best World Cinema at the prestigious Sundance; Jacki Weaver was even nominated for an Oscar in her role as murderous matriarch Janine. And while Snowtown is yet to hit the prize circuit, it has already received international exposure at Toronto Film Festival and Cannes Critics Week, as well as securing distribution deals in the UK, USA and France.
What is it about the working-class crime film that has so captured the imagination of local and international audiences? Aesthetically, these have been some of the more innovative examples of Australian cinema in recent years. The genre can be defined as much by its style as by its narrative themes. Shot in the eternal dusk of blue filters, sunlight is a rare (if not entirely absent) occurrence in these worlds. Their sparse and ominous soundtracks hover at the edges of perception, only reaching consciousness at moments when violence takes centre screen. And more often than not, the film’s action does not leave the suburban home, shots taken through doorways or behind furniture adding to these films’ overwhelming sense of claustrophobia.
These are milieus of absentee fathers and overbearing yet ineffectual mothers, their tragedy inherently linked to the breakdown of the nuclear family. While poverty is shown to be a breeding ground for brutality, its ultimate source is always the figure of the charismatic, avuncular psychopath who is able to hypnotise and mobilise those around them—Hando (Russell Crowe) in Romper Stomper, Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) in Idiot Box, Brett (David Wenham) in The Boys, Pope (Mendelsohn again) in Animal Kingdom and John Bunting (Daniel Henshaw) in Snowtown. Nobody is impervious to the psychopath’s spell, for he (and it is always a he) fills the void left by the deserter Daddy and a need for the authority that Daddy represents. But we must ask what this says about Australian attitudes towards working-class existence? In these films’ worldview, the battler is always but one psychopath away from savagery.
Snowtown takes the genre to its extreme, and has divided viewers as a result. Several of its Cannes audience infamously walked out, which has proved a fitting metaphor for its ensuing critical reception. Richard Wilkins of Today called it “the most disgusting, horrific, depraved and degrading film” he had ever seen, “as close to a snuff movie” as he could bear. Helen Garner, writing in the Monthly, chastised director Justin Kurzel for the film’s amorality, asking, “What licenses a filmmaker to shove us off the edge of the abyss, to walk away and leave us endlessly falling, without hope of redemption?” Generally, however, the film’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive, garnering reviews peppered with terms like “authentic”, “gritty”, “risky” and “compelling”, praising its unflinching depiction of the blighted people who dwell on society’s fringes. Mark Naglazas of the West Australian went so far as to ask if “crime dramas, not quirky comedies, are the truest, most natural expression of our natural character”?
Snowtown is based on the ‘bodies in barrels’ murders of the 1990s, the work of Australia’s most notorious serial killer John Bunting, in which eight bodies were discovered in vats of acid stored in a bank vault in Snowtown, South Australia. Sketching a portrait of a forgotten community, Kurzel attempts to show the kind of destitution that allowed a psychopath like Bunting to take control. Much of the film’s uncanny horror lies in the fact that it was shot in the North Adelaide suburbs where the real-life murders actually took place, the majority of the cast (except Henshaw) non-professional actors sourced from casting calls in the area.
Yet there is something about Snowtown that wallows in this community’s poverty. Kurzel is quick to survey the surrounding squalor—barren yards punctuated by miscellaneous trash, careless graffiti on the walls of austere council houses, burnt out shells of cars. The camera zooms in on family feasts of fried eggs and tomato sauce on white toast, overflowing ashtrays and kids’ meals sitting side-by-side on the laminex table. Bored teenagers play videogames, smoke ciggies outside concrete shopping malls and ride their bikes in circles on sad, grey streets. As adults, the games may change but the patterns remain the same—they chain-smoke, drink stubbies and play the pokies, everyone doing the best they can to stave off the ennui of the suburbs.
When a man offers to babysit Elizabeth’s (Louise Harris) children in the film’s opening scenes, it comes as no surprise when he turns out to be a paedophile, taking naked photos of Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and his younger brothers, who all seem unperturbed. This is a world where abuse is casual. Jamie’s older brother nonchalantly rapes him while they watch the cricket, the sound of Richie Benaud’s commentary echoing from the television set in the background and the flyscreen door open to the street.
So when John Bunting materializes in their kitchen seemingly out of nowhere, driving away the paedophile by defacing his house with severed kangaroo appendages, he seems like a fairy godfather. He takes Jamie under his wing, cooks meals with vegetables and escorts Elizabeth out dancing, one of the only scenes in which we see this burnt out shell of a woman smile. But in the logic of Snowtown, and the logic of the working-class crime films more broadly, we know that any happiness will be short lived.
Bunting views himself as something of a vigilante, a kind of suburban Travis Bickle who has been sent to cleanse the suburban scourge. “The cops won’t do anything,” he tells his neighbours. “You gotta take it into your own hands”. Bunting is able to create a much-needed sense of community, encouraging parents to convene around the dinner table and relay their dissatisfaction with the system that has abandoned them. Bunting lets them express their pain, empowers them to verbalize how they would enact justice, if only they could—lurid revenge fantasies in which they show the abusers just who’s boss. The only difference with Bunting? These are not mere fantasies. He plans to act on them, ridding the world of “paedos” and “fags” (which, in Bunting’s eyes, means the same thing).
Like in Animal Kingdom (which is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Josh [James Frechville]), the spectator is aligned with the subjectivity of Jamie, a blank slate of a 16-year-old boy who falls under Bunting’s spell. Often framed through Jamie’s eyes, we too are taken forcibly into this world in which Kurzel plays with what is necessary to show on screen. Extreme close-ups of toenails being torn off with pliers, a man’s face beaten so brutally it is becomes a relief map of bruises, gashes and swelling, Jamie’s brother being garrotted in the family bathtub from which their mother later bathes. We too become complicit in these horrors, and like Jamie are taken from innocence to corruption.
As the film progresses, Bunting’s targets become increasingly more indiscriminate. He kills Jamie’s best friend, a “fucking junkie” who Bunting insists is “a waste,” and later, an intellectually disabled teen. Why? Simply because he can. But it is the final murder that completes Jamie’s descent into moral turpitude—the killing of his half-brother, who has started a mechanic’s apprenticeship and is on the cusp of escape. As the two drive towards Snowtown, we don’t know whether Jamie is planning to confess—to reveal his misdeeds in the hope of redemption—or to deliver his brother into Bunting’s arms. Of course, it is the latter. The camera pans out through the doorway, leaving the brother alone with the most prolific serial killer Australia has ever known. The transition from innocence to corruption is complete, and it is here Kurzel deserts us, in the darkness, as the credits begin to roll.
What is it about this utterly grim portrait of working-class life that has caused so many to praise Snowtown for its authenticity? In suburban comedies like The Castle, we love the Kerrigans because they are at once us and not us. They are quintessentially Australian, the archetypal battler through whom we define our national specificity. And yet they are so grotesque, their ordinariness so aggrandized, that we do not only laugh with them but also at them. We can praise our own good tastes, for surely no one is that Australian, and file the Kerrigans under the category of cultural cringe.
The people of Snowtown, however, are decidedly not us. Nor are any of the characters of the working-class crime films. And we definitely do not love them. On the contrary, they terrify us. The Castle played at suburban multiplexes, but Snowtown’s distribution has been limited to arthouse cinemas. We praise Kurzel for his ‘authentic’ representation of the Australian experience, yet we are safe in the knowledge that this ‘authentic’ experience is far removed from our own—that ‘authenticity’ lies in forgotten communities in forgotten suburbs, far removed from the inner-city cinemas where we look on in dismay.
It is difficult to chart where the fictional and the cinematic diverge. Most of these are true crime films, based on real life events – the Anita Cobby case in The Boys, the Pettingill family in Animal Kingdom, and of course Bunting in Snowtown. And there is no doubt that the impoverished worlds in which these events occurred are similarly bleak, plagued by violence, addiction, abuse and a range of other repercussions of poverty.
In their cinematic representations though, hopelessness becomes all encompassing. As a friend commented to me after seeing Snowtown, “Surely they weren’t all that stupid? Surely somebody disagreed?” Kurzel does not allow Jamie and his family a moment of joy, nor is there any character who is left untouched by Bunting’s madness. And there is certainly no possibility of transcendence. Death is the only escape. There is an overwhelming pessimism surrounding working-class existence that imbues this genre—a sense of fait accompli, the repetitive nature of this world ensuring tragedy is the only outcome. The innocent will inevitably be infected by evil, and the whole vicious cycle will start again.
Australians say they love a battler. But when we place the underclass on screen, it seems our empathy goes AWOL, much like that of these psychopathic protagonists. If this is really how we see ourselves, then what are we so scared of?