Named after the South Australian region where a number of victims from an almost decade-long murder spree were found in the late 90’s, Snowtown is the latest entry in the burgeoning Aussie backwater crime sub-genre. Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between this and Animal Kingdom (both films are rooted within a similar suburban underclass) but this is a far more brutal and bleaker film which, given the dark and oppressive tone inherent in the latter feature, is really saying something.

Although hailing from a background in music videos, first-time feature director Justin Kurzel hasn’t been tempted to ramp up the film’s visuals and instead, pushes for a chillingly authentic atmosphere (all mud-encrusted lawns and neighbourhoods populated with scrawny, feral-looking children and adults), and unlike the similar terrain covered in a film like Winter’s Bone, there’s no hidden lyrical beauty to be found in the stark surroundings here – they’re as grotty and uninviting as it comes. Kurzel’s further commitment to establishing a rawness also filters down to the cast he’s managed to assemble (many of whom are appearing in front of a camera for the first time), and they give vivid and (sometimes unflinchingly) honest performances.

One of those newcomers is Lucas Pittaway (plucked from a shopping mall, with no prior acting experience) and he plays a shy, apathetic 16-year-old named Jamie Vlassakis. Living in an impoverished single-parent household with his two younger siblings, it’s hardly a fun adolescence. Misery is further heaped upon him and his brothers when a potential suitor for their mother who lives across the street encourages the boys to strip for a nauseating photo shoot while looking after them for a weekend. Sadly, it’s the kind of demeaning and appalling behaviour which looks far from a rare occurrence in this environment.

Sanctuary appears to come in the form of their mother’s next lover, John Bunting. Jamie in particular, takes an instant shine to him and Bunting reciprocates the trust and warmth being projected, offering a glimpse at the kind of paternal support which has so far eluded the family. Pretty soon however, this new fixture in their lives reveals his true colours to Jamie, and the impressionable, insecure teen falls under Bunting’s spell and soon becomes complicit in his murderous lifestyle.

It isn’t an understatement to call Daniel Henshall’s portrayal of this serial killer as one of the most fearsome characters in modern cinema. His bearded and chubby cherub-like features betray the dangerous and sociopathic tendencies bubbling underneath. He’s a remorseless sadist who hides behind a bloated and misplaced sense of moral indignation and bigotry, and Henshall’s casual personification of a real and tangible evil (played out within those banal surroundings) is truly unsettling. In one disturbing scene, he lovingly demands an innocent peck on the cheek from the youngest of the brothers before, moments later, callously revealing his latest victim to Jamie. Pittaway is fantastic too, and his transformation from a young, doughy, Heath Ledger-lookalike to a sickly, burned-out adult, emotionally deadened to the horrors around him, is remarkable.

Snowtown is incredibly hard going at times, particularly as Kurzel establishes such an unrelenting grimness and populates his film with a collection of characters who (with exception of the younger children involved) fail to possess any redeeming qualities whatsoever, and mainly generate a feeling of deep revulsion. However, while not for everyone, this is undeniably a striking and powerful piece of feel-bad cinema.

The director has an incredible eye for arresting imagery (a big fat close-up of a caged snake swallowing a mouse whole is an obvious, but potent visual metaphor), and using a sparse, pulsating sound design (populated with a stripped down, post-rock soundtrack) he conjures up a vision of hell on earth which is hard to shake off when the lights come up. While it’s not a film which many will choose to revisit, it certainly demands to be seen.