Evil, they say, is banal. We would like it to be otherwise of course, which is why in literature and the arts the devil tends to get the best tunes. Leading men always make the point in interviews that actually they’d much rather play the far more interesting villain; goodness is so boring. Filmmakers wanting to make a critical mark make much of their duty to take us to the “dark side”, their assumption being that somehow we need to be forced to look further than our lives of sun-filled denial. But most people of course are very well-acquainted with darkness in one of its many shapes or forms, and they know that more often than not it is grinding, monotonous and deadening.
Film violence is balletic, vivid and (increasingly) cartoonish; a fight with flick knives at closing time is fumbled, fuzzy and over within seconds. The same goes for the other end of the spectrum of darkness: serial killers are usually modest men with much to be modest about, whereas the movies have given us Hannibal Lecter, a paragon of suave erudition and wry humour, somebody we might want to know, or even aspire to be. The adventures of Hannibal the Cannibal are among the best horror-thrillers of recent years, from the psychological warfare of The Silence of the Lambs to the misty Gothicism of its sequel Hannibal. I have watched and rewatched these movies, and admired them anew and laughed again. But what I’m not looking for in them is anything approximating the truth.
The reality of course is Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen, Fred and Rose West — small, dreary people inhabiting pokey places. Another name to add to this list is John Bunting. It’s probable that, like me, you haven’t heard of him, but in the 1990s he emerged as Australia’s most notorious serial killer, and the story of his murders has now made it to the screen in Snowtown (the name of the backwater where most of the bodies of his 11 victims were found). On the face of it, Bunting was as ordinary as they come. He fitted completely into the context in which he carried out his crimes — which is to say working class, indeed underclass — suburban Australia. Perhaps the only thing which separates him from the roll call above is that he seems to have had a twisted motive which did not solely derive from his need to kill, as it were, for company, but which came from his hatred of paedophiles and gays, or at least those he decided to label as such.
Director Justin Kurzel has made a film which is about as far away from most mainstream treatments of this kind of subject as it’s possible to be. It centres on the relationship between an insipid, lost teenager Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and Bunting, who arrives seemingly out of nowhere before successfully ingratiating himself with the lumpen, semi-destitute circle which makes up Jamie’s network of friends and family. Bunting (played by Daniel Henshall) becomes a father figure for the boy, gradually drawing him in until Jamie ends up a full accomplice in his campaign of hatred and personalised punishment.
The treatment throughout is documentary-style, similar in tone to Paul Greengrass’s 9/11 film United 93, in that we’re never quite sure whether what we’re watching is heavily fictionalised or an outright re-creation of the “true crime” variety. This is underlined by the fact that many of the cast were not professional actors but people from the surrounding neighbourhood chosen for their presumed authenticity. Consequently the overall effect is very disturbing, like a fly-on-the-wall reality TV show. We see groups of friends and neighbours sitting around kitchen tables, railing against sexual crime and the apparent inability of the authorities to do anything about it, their suggestibility being exploited and whipped up by the superficially responsible and straightforward Bunting.
There is little gore in Snowtown, but when they come, the few scenes of violence and death are appalling. But what makes one depressed ultimately is the utter grimness and degradation which fills every part of this story: the hopelessness, the total absence of any form of structure to these lives, the poverty of resources — mental as much as economic — among these people which leaves them incapable of seeing what is happening in their midst. I did not appreciate the extent to which Australia — bright, shiny and prosperous — had its own underclass, a milieu which in all essentials resembles our own, revealed to us during the Shannon Matthews fake kidnap case in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Not that Snowtown is crudely putting a case for nurture over nature; it remains matter-of-fact, almost dispassionate throughout, an approach which, strangely, makes it even more gruelling to watch.
A more familiar kind of darkness — the moral type which stalks the corridors of power — can be found in The Ides of March, which you might still be able to catch at the cinema (if not, watch the DVD). George Clooney directs himself as a Democrat presidential candidate in a drama which wavers little from the firmly established tradition of US political films like The Candidate and All The President’s Men. We tend to know exactly what we’re going to get with such movies — here, Clooney’s press man (Ryan Gosling) finds himself crossed, double-crossed and then crossed again — and there are the usual dilemmas and compromises to be wrestled with. This is nonetheless thoroughly superior and polished entertainment.
Despite its cynicism about the process, the film manages that peculiarly American balancing act whereby a belief in the fundamentals of the system, or at least the principles on which it is based, emerges unscathed. A similar British effort would reveal everything to be rotten to the core but not worth getting worked up about. Clooney’s campaign poster in the film is obviously modelled on Obama’s Warhol-esque “Change” image, which highlights just how quickly disappointment with The One has overtaken the real world.