By Rich Cline
Based on a nightmarish true story, this Australian drama starts in a squalid home and descends into pure horror. And by eerily underplaying everything while keeping us off-balance, the filmmakers make one of the most terrifyingly original movies of the year.
In a rough late-90s Adelaide neighbourhood, 16-year-old Jamie (Pittaway) lives with his mother Liz (Harris), three brothers and Liz's eerily charming new man John (Henshall). After Liz discovers that a paedophile lives across the street, John teaches Jamie how to express his anger, slowly earning his loyalty. Then Jamie begins to realise that John is actually killing people he despises, mostly because they're gay. And by the time his fears become founded, he's in too deep to escape from John's grip.
To recount one of Australia's most notorious serial killer cases from such an introspective perspective is deeply unnerving. Director Kurzel and writer Grant deliberately avoid filmmaking conventions, keeping us disoriented from start to finish, to echo Jamie's troubled mindset. Characters come and go, some are killed, but we don't always know which ones, and we're never sure how anyone is connected to Liz's family.
But then, these aren't sterling members of society: they're lower working-class, uneducated, usually inebriated and furious at the world. The filmmakers so vividly recreate this community, and the cast members give such naturalistic performances, that we want to flinch from the screen. Only Jamie ever commands our sympathy, partly because of the horrors we've seen him suffer at the hands of his neighbour and his older brother Troy (Groves), but also because we can see his innocence being so cruelly manipulated.
Which brings us to Henshall, who delivers a terrifying performance by never playing John as the monster that he is. There are only a few moments when we see into his pitch-black soul, such as a ghastly scene with his dog and an unspeakably brutal moment with Troy. This is the kind of villain who sends chills down your spine because he's sometimes also a caring stepdad. But maybe the film is saying that these kinds of headline-grabbing events are never as cut and dry as we'd like them to be.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Thursday 19th May 2011
Distributed by: IFC Films
Production compaines: Screen Australia, South Australian Film Corporation, Warp Films Australia
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 11
Cast & Crew
Producer: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw
Screenwriter: Shaun Grant
Starring: Lucas Pittaway as Jamie Vlassakis, Daniel Henshall as John Bunting, Louise Harris as Elizabeth Harvey, Frank Cwertniak as Jeffrey, Matthew Howard as Nicholas, Marcus Howard as Alex, Anthony Groves as Troy, Richard Green as Barry, Aaron Viergever as Robert, Beau Gosling as David, Brendan Rock as Marcus, David Walker as Mark Haydon, Kathryn Wissell as Suzanne, Bryan Sellars as Minister, Craig Coyne as Ray, Keiran Schwerdt as Thomas, Aasta Brown as Verna, Allan Chapple as Prayer Reader, Andrew Mayers as Fred, Krystle Flaherty as Vikki, Denis Davey as Guitar Player, Robert Deeble as Gary