Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

I know what you’re thinking. You wait ages for a Focuspullr review and then two come along at once. No? Ah well. Apologies friends for overloading the blogosphere, but despite seeing this during the IFI’s Horrorthon Festival over the Halloween weekend, I felt compelled to write it up, as it is a highly original and striking film.

Snowtown concerns itself with the true-life crimes of Australian serial killer, John Bunting, brilliantly played by Daniel Henshall.  Between 1992 and 1999 Bunting and a group of not-so-willing accomplices murdered eleven people in various locations in Southern Australia. The murders became known in the national media as The Snowtown Murders, as some of the bodies were discovered in barrels hidden in a disused bank vault in Snowtown, a suburb north of Adelaide. Bunting’s victims were random people he thought to be homosexual, or whom he considered to be paedophiles, and therefore “dangerous”, and were drawn from the mostly welfare-dependent communities in which Bunting established himself.

In the film, John befriends Elizabeth (Louise Harvey), a depressed, separated mother of three teenage boys. The boys had previously been left with a paedophile neighbour who abused them while Elizabeth was out visiting her ex-partner. When Bunting learns of this, he embarks on a campaign of intimidation to scare off the neighbour. John then becomes a kind of father-figure to the boys; slowly establishing himself in their home, and gradually becoming Elizabeth’s partner. John strikes up a close friendship with Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), the middle son, in particular, and involves the boys in his hate campaign against their paedophile neighbour, who eventually flees the area.  As we come to understand the neglectful environment the boys are growing up in, we learn that Jamie is also being abused, physically as well as sexually, by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves); causing him to withdraw into near silence, and inuring him to anything resembling “normal” feelings.

This is Justin Kurzel’s feature debut – apparently he grew up in and around the area where some of Bunting’s murders took place –  and instead of giving us a straight-ahead chronological or biographical treatment, he allows the film to gradually unfold in a series of images and transitions which simply show rather than tell. I knew nothing about the real-life story before seeing the film, and had to read up on Bunting afterwards to fill in most of the blanks, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. Kurzel’s images are so strong, so artfully well constructed, that prior knowledge of the factual elements of the story is not essential.

Daniel Henshall really steals the show as Bunting; charismatic, friendly, charming – it’s easy to see how he could pull people in and gradually get them to do his bidding. Kurzel doesn’t paint him as obviously psychotic or crazy, but as really very ordinary – just a regular guy who likes to play Dad, who is likeable, dependable and a shoulder for people who need him. His true nature is revealed slowly and incrementally; the crimes he commits gradually depicted, the horrible tortures he inflicts slowly built up to. Actually the film is not all that graphic; there is only one extended scene which is difficult to watch, but otherwise Kurzel’s camera implies rather than shows directly.

Daniel Henshall as John Bunting

The film leaves Bunting nearing the end of his murder spree, with another soon-to-be victim, in that disused bank vault in Snowtown.  Kurzel’s film doesn’t go into the details of what followed, but instead ends with some textual information on the facts of the case. This is an intense and involving film that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it left me wanting to see it again almost immediately. Highly recommended.

Snowtown opens in Cineworld Dublin today.

Watch the trailer:

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Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Following on from her acclaimed features Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009); Andrea Arnold moves away from her usual stomping ground of present-day council estates to the bleak, rain-lashed Yorkshire Moors, for her take on Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.

Arnold’s story concentrates on the first half of Bronte’s novel; where Heathcliff, a young orphan boy of exotic stock, is brought to live with the Earnshaw family at Wuthering Heights. Hindley and Catherine, son and daughter of Mr Earnshaw, are unwelcoming at first; and while Hindley nurses a deep hatred of the boy, Catherine eventually warms to him and the two come to form a deep, lasting friendship.

Cathy and Heathcliff spend every available moment happily wandering the moors together, and are indulged by Cathy’s father. However when he dies, his son Hindley takes over the house and things worsen for Heathcliff as he is relegated to servant status and made to bed down with the farm animals. When Cathy goes to stay with the Linton family, after an attack by one of their dogs, she makes friends with Edgar Linton; a friendship which blossoms into a marriage proposal which forces Heathcliff to run away from Wuthering Heights in a jealous rage. When Heathcliff returns some years later, wealthy and well dressed, his passion for Cathy unabated; he sets out to take revenge on Hindley, Edgar and Cathy.

Arnold moves with ease from contemporary cityscapes to the period countryside of Bronte’s novel; and her decision to use young, inexperienced actors, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, to play the young Heathcliff and Cathy, gives the film a realism which couldn’t be further removed from the melodramatic romanticism of earlier screen versions. Arnold’s usual Cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoots close-up, in natural light, and there is no soundtrack, except for the natural sounds of wind, rain and wildlife.

The Director has obviously made some serious, stark choices in her presentation of the novel’s story. She has cast a young black actor as Heathcliff, prompting Hindley to call him a “nigger” at one point; and Heathcliff himself uses colourful modern language which I doubt peppered Bronte’s original. As for language, Arnold leaves Bronte’s period prose to one side; there is very little dialogue in the film overall and what there is tends to be terse, raw, brutal and far from poetic or florid.

Foggy notions - Kaya Scodelario as Cathy

Instead Arnold’s direction picks out the misery and brutality of the lives depicted. We see casual cruelty dispensed to people and animals alike; Hindley’s violent and cruel behaviour towards the young Heathcliff is mirrored by the older Heathcliff hanging a dog on a gate post and leaving it there. Heathcliff is also cruel and manipulative towards Edgar’s sister Isabella, whose infatuation he stokes in order to punish Cathy and infuriate Edgar.

While the film always looks beautiful, the inexperience of the younger actors shows and sometimes lets it down. Arnold has worked successfully with non-actors before (most notably Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) but in this case, I just didn’t feel Cathy and Heathcliff’s pain. I was waiting to feel great rushes of emotion from their deep, overpowering love; but these just didn’t materialise. It was difficult to believe how Heathcliff could have nursed such an obsession towards Cathy all his adult life, when their earlier years depict them as being more like just good friends, not impassioned lovers – but perhaps this is better mapped out in the novel.

In any event, this is an interesting side-step for Andrea Arnold and, to her credit, she has kept her own vision very firmly up on the screen, despite dealing with period material for the first time. Very few directors would be as brave, or take the chances that she takes with this film; but I think I prefer her adapting her own writing for the screen, and look forward to seeing where she wanders to next.

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The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

Well it’s been a hectic time over at focuspullr HQ of late, what with other commitments and illness keeping me away from the blogosphere, though I’ve still managed to see a few movies. Highlights of recent viewings have been Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and the subject of this post, George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

Taking his title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, signalling political intrigue and backstabbing, Clooney marshalls a superb ensemble cast for the second overtly political film of his career, after Good Night, And Good Luck. He stars as Mike Morris, a liberal, handsome governor of Pennsylvania, competing in the Democratic Primary elections, and aiming for the office of U.S. President. Heading up his campaign team is seasoned veteran Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) aided by hot new kid on the political block, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling).

Meyers is youthful, sharp and politically astute; hitting all the right buttons with his campaign speeches for the governor, and quietly confident that Morris is the man for the White House job. However, his ill-advised decision to attend a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for a rival Democratic Candidate, puts him in a compromising position with his employer and unwittingly leads to him becoming tangled up in a complex political web also involving the governor and a beautiful young intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

American Stars and Bars - George Clooney in The Ides of March

Though it lacks the serious analytical depth and complexity of 70s political drama’s such as All The President’s Men or The Candidate, which it calls to mind, The Ides of March soon turns into a cracking political thriller. Clooney and his co-writers Grant Heslov (who also worked with Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck) and Beau Willimon (on whose play, Farragut North, the film is based) keep a firm grip on the narrative tension as the backstabbing, bluffing and double-crossings gather pace. Gosling is excellent as the initially idealistic Meyers, who soon discovers that a career in politics is, in fact, not at all based on old-fashioned beliefs and ideals, but rather on who can best manipulate the state of play to his own ends. He is ably assisted by both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, both heavy hitters in their own right, who bring great intelligence and subtlety to their respective supporting roles. Clooney also deserves a mention as the handsome, clean-cut governor, with a dangerous skeleton lurking in his campaign locker.

The 1970s feel of the film is apparent in the martial drumming which plays over the opening credits, and in the plain white lettering of the title, as well as in Clooney’s assured, non-showy direction. While he mostly lets the story do the talking, he also knows how to build visual suspense. The scene where Morris calls Seymour Hoffman’s character over to his jeep and leaves us and the camera outside is skilfull and unexpected. Clooney keeps the focus squarely on the character-driven narrative, which progresses logically, is always believable and concludes that even the most high-minded and morally robust of men can lay ideals aside to protect and further themselves, in pursuit of their own ambitions.

The Ides of March is on general release now.

Watch the trailer