What is it with first-time Australian filmmakers and ultraviolent true-crime movies about thuggish underclass families? In the spirit of Rowan Woods’ The Boys and David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, the docu-drama The Snowtown Murders follows how a young man’s desire to establish himself within a brutal pecking order leads to some unconscionable business. Adapted by screenwriter Shaun Grant and novice feature-director Justin Kurzel from a true story, The Snowtown Murders stars Lucas Pittaway as a shy teenager who falls under the spell of his mother’s charismatic boyfriend Daniel Henshall, who coolly persuades Pittaway and a handful of associates that the only way to keep their poverty- and crime-ridden community safe is to intimidate all the degenerates. The gang starts small, vandalizing a few homes to let people know who’s in charge. By the time their spree is done, they’ve killed nearly a dozen people, and stuffed some of the corpses into acid-filled barrels stored in a bank in Snowtown, South Australia.
A sense of overfamiliarity drags at The Snowtown Murders, as does Grant and Kurzel’s preoccupation with this case’s gorier details. (It’s one thing to make sure the audience understands just how horrific these killers’ crimes were; it’s another to drag out scenes of torture and debasement until they become tedious.) But the sense of enervation that creeps into the movie’s second half is bothersome mainly because The Snowtown Murders is often brilliant in its depiction of the mundanity of evil. The most terrifying scenes aren’t the ones where people get bashed and strangled; they’re the ones where Henshall is sitting at a kitchen table with his neighbors, smiling faux-warmly as he gets them to admit that child molesters and other perverts deserve to be severely punished. From there, it’s only a small logical leap to suggesting that anyone who’s even a little bit eccentric should be stopped before they do something awful. And before long, all it takes is an offhand comment about some young acquaintance’s needlessly expensive shoes to get the mob in lockstep behind a man wielding blood-stained blunt instruments.