Snowtown

By skepticlawyer

Last night, I watched Snowtown, if ‘watched’ is the right word. It is surprisingly easy to forget to breathe. And this film steals your breath, sliding its hands around your throat until you sit there, lips parted, bug-eyed, willing it to stop. Surely, the logic goes, surely they’re going to get caught soon. You can’t have a dozen people disappear in half as many years without somebody–anybody–noticing.

But as John Justin Bunting and his accomplices went about their grisly work, no-one noticed, at least not for a very long time. Of course, there were subterfuges–impersonating the murder victims to Centrelink, so that their welfare benefits could be stolen, leaving messages (extracted under torture) on relatives’ answering machines to the effect that the victim was taking flight: to Queensland, to Perth, to a new girlfriend’s place. None of the subterfuges were very clever, however, and sometimes the sound of Bunting’s voice dictating the appropriate lines could be heard faintly in the background.

Perhaps (and this this is quite possibly the film’s most terrifying point, more frightening than its scenes of extreme violence) no-one wanted to notice. Significantly, the police closed in after the only killing that took place in Snowtown itself, that of David Johnson. Johnson was the only victim who was gainfully employed.

Not noticing

I know, perhaps, too many policemen; it goes with the territory. After the London riots, one told me of a worrying phenomenon that the riots exposed: the widespread practice of failing to register births in some poorer parts of the country. This titbit came back to me as I watched; it struck me as a foundation upon which one could build a great deal of not noticing. If people fail to register their babies and no-one notices, then it seems perfectly plausible for Centrelink staff and family members not to notice that the woman making benefits claims doesn’t much look like the named claimant, or that so-and-so hasn’t been in contact with his family for a long time.

Killers killed

Acting Police Commissioner Neil McKenzie, during the course of the investigation, commented that Snowtown’s killers and killed alike constituted a ‘group that preyed on itself’. The two roles could flip, and with breathtaking suddenness. The film catches this. A friend asked me if Snowtown was ‘a slasher graphic’ and my answer is no, it’s not, precisely because it spends its time delineating the subterranean currents flowing beneath the community that looked to Bunting as would-be moral enforcer. There is one terrifying scene, but for the most part any horror is achieved by necessary implication. The way that Bunting manipulates his co-accuseds (and the utterly deracinated community of which they are all part) is probably worse than the violence.

Bunting–unlike most serial killers–did not work alone; he actively sought out conspirators. Like the fictional murderer in Seven, however, he also set out to ‘clean up the city’. One victim had a paedophilia conviction. Another sexually abused one of Bunting’s co-accuseds: the film depicts this as rape, although none of the background material I read after seeing the film provided that much clarity. British friends of mine who watched it (and who only became aware of the story’s full trajectory in the process of watching) pointed out how unpleasant it was to find themselves almost siding with Bunting during the early scenes, when he runs a known paedophile out of the district.

Moral incontinence 

There is something else, too, in this film, beyond Bunting’s cruelty and terror, and that of his accomplices: the community itself, concentrated as it is in the poorer parts of Adelaide’s northern suburbs: Salisbury North, Smithfield Plains. I have written (in relation to the Karen and Shannon Matthews case) of the loss of moral moorings in sundry British council estates:

The case is important, not because of what she did, horrible though that was, but what she has exposed. She opened our eyes to an underclass that most of us ignored or hoped would just go away.

Matthews is the mother of seven children by five different men. She has never worked, but lived off benefits of £286.60 a week. The Matthews’s house was filthy. A neighbour declared, “I wouldn’t want to keep a pet dog in there, let alone children.” Her relationships with men were so promiscuous that when police built up a family tree it stretched to 300 names.

Karen’s nine-year-old daughter Shannon was regularly drugged to keep her quiet, had feet encrusted with dirt, was infested with head lice and flinched at any sudden noise. Police found a note scribbled by Shannon to her brother: “Do you think we will get any tea tonight? If we’re quiet we might get a bag of sweets. Don’t talk too loud or get a beating.” This was in a family receiving in benefits the equivalent of £20,000 a year before tax. Seven children were going hungry to bed, not because of social deprivation but because their mother could not be bothered to feed them [editorial note – only 4 of the children were living with Matthews at the time; the others had been taken into care, or were living with their fathers].

Apart from a generalised agreement that paedophilia is bad, and that paedophiles should be punished (preferably using forms of torture that would make the people who organised the playbill at the Colosseum proud), the residents of Salisbury North are morally incontinent: promiscuous, lazy, venal. Bunting cooks real food and fixes people’s cars; he cleans the house and does the washing and provides driving lessons. It’s not much, but enough to make him revered. Which means that when he starts expectorating about who should be tortured and killed, he is heeded. Which means that when he digs a twelve by fifteen foot hole in the backyard and people start disappearing, no-one notices.

Much less cares.

23 Comments

  1. Posted November 27, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    The strangest thing of all, to me, is that Bunting was born and raised in Inala, which I gather is the Brisbane equivalent of Adelaide’s ‘challenged’ northern suburbs. And that it’s a pattern — there have been at least three grotesque criminal situations in recent times, in the same Adelaide area, in which the central character turns out to have been a blow-in from interstate. It’s almost as if they have sussed out the area beforehand and homed in on it as a suitable place to be themselves.

  2. Posted November 27, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    My knowledge of Adelaide is now many years out of date, and confined to festivals (where I was a guest years ago), but in order for the Adelaide northern suburbs to be deprived in the same way as Inala, there would need to be a significant Aboriginal population. The place depicted in Snowtown reminded me of parts of Logan City, which isn’t, strictly speaking, Brisbane. Logan is multicultural and (historically, it may be better now) very deprived, but not notably indigenous in the same way as Inala.

    Brisbane is a relatively small place; when I saw that Bunting came from Inala, and is less than 10 years older than me, I caught myself wondering if I’d met him. I used to train in a karate club in the next suburb, I worked briefly at Inala Plaza, and a friend went to Richlands High, before it was combined with Inala High to become ‘Glenala’:

    http://www.bswnc.org.au/richshs/

  3. Posted November 28, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    It appears to be a community starved of the dignity of labour and all the requirements of responsibility involved therein. Including substantial interaction with a wider set of social norms.

  4. Adrien
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Which means that when he starts expectorating about who should be tortured and killed, he is heeded.

    Figures – the Eichmann/Milgram experiment thing.

    Most people’s moral compass seems to derive entirely from what someone in authority says and someone in authority can be designated by something as innocuous as a uniform or the aura of ‘winning’. Eichmann thought Hitler was a winner so he calmly went about the administration of the killing of millions of people. Bunting’s victims were despicable but he appeared to have his shit together so they fell to depravity.

    Consequence of defining ‘good’ as the opposite of whatever someone calls ‘evil’ whether or not it actually is.

  5. Adrien
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I guess it’s slightly off-topic but there is an explosion of uniforms in Melbourne. We have police officers, federal police officers who have their own cars that appear to patrol for some reason, ‘public safety officers’ (some kind of public security guard), metro ticket inspectors and an array of private security types.

    All these guys seem ‘authorized’ to use violence and arrest people. And exactly what lines protect us from abuse of this ‘authority’ is increasingly unclear.

  6. Posted November 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Actually, it seems more like alpha male pack behaviour to me.

  7. kvd
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Bunting cooks real food and fixes people’s cars; he cleans the house and does the washing and provides driving lessons. It’s not much, but enough to make him revered.

    That’s not ‘alpha male behaviour’. And anyway, this is SL’s account of her perceptions of the film; not necessarily connected to what actually happened.

    I’m not interested in seeing the film, but having read the wikip entry, I see that four of the crimes were sited in Murray Bridge, four or so in Salisbury North, and the last in poor old Snowtown.

    So, from the actions of one ?alpha mad guy, we are supposed form opinions of the rest of the population of Salisbury North? Or Murray Bridge? Or Snowtown. That doesn’t work for me, just as I continue to think Port Arthur is one of the most peaceful places in Australia..

  8. Movius
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    The reputations of Salisbury North, Smithfield Plains and Murray Bridge have bigger issues than anything portrayed in Snowtown.

    Interesting aside about the layout of the suburbs (at the time.) Salisbury North & Smithfield Plains were not really the sort of suburbs you could accidentally end up in. They are away from major roads, etc. It’s easy to see how the community there could become isolated from social norms.

  9. Posted November 28, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    That is one similarity with Inala, Movius. Logan is genuinely some distance from Brisbane; Inala is bloody hard to get to (no trains, few buses) despite being only 18km from the GPO. And that was deliberate: one of the things that’s emerged in economic research into both areas is the tendency not to travel into Brisbane, not even for ‘a Friday night out’.

  10. kvd
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    [email protected] the same isolation could be applied to any country town, or even larger inward-turning cities such as Canberra. So is it the proximity to a wider world (of Brisbane, say) that you are remarking?

    The existence of such areas has as much to do with those who choose not to reside there (or move away), as it does with those who choose to congregate (or remain).

  11. Patrick
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Adrien – I wonder how many people in the world realise how draconian our police can be.

    The occupy protests (or any others) were one example – the boundaries of acceptable protest here are very finely drawn and overreach is not permitted.

    Consider also the response to yesterday’s shooting. If the police in GTA responded in armoured, automatic-submachinegun-wielding, helicopter-reinforced numbers to every single isolated shooting like the Victoria Police do it would be a very very tough game: they should consider GTA VI: Melbourne, the ultimate frontier 😉

    Ironically, in many ways this is a good thing! Our civil liberties are not actually obviously so threatened by this, quite possibly the contrary.

  12. Adrien
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo – Actually, it seems more like alpha male pack behaviour to me

    I think the phenomena are causally related.

  13. Adrien
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Patrick – The police forces of the world seem to be testing the barriers, they have political support on both sides of the house. One of the problems with an atrophied political tradition is that many people simply have no idea about the basic principles which our society rests upon.

    Joh Bjelke-Petersen was a target of fun because he failed to understand the doctrine of separation of powers. But my peers in the Labor Party at Uni were likewise failures. The fault was convenient for them of course. Some of these people have positions of power now.

  14. Posted November 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I watched the film last night. It was certainly a gripping experience.

    That’s not ‘alpha male behaviour’.

    It might not be alpha male behaviour but the film portrayed him as exhibiting a certain amount of leadership that was otherwise lacking in the community. It seemed the more he would do (whether domestic chores or otherwise) the more respect and social power he gained. The more power he had, the more extreme actions he was able to get away with. I’m not sure it was that he was a moral enforcer as that he simply defined and controlled the way their world worked; he was an authority but not necessarily a moral one.

  15. Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    People seem to be confused as to what alpha male behaviour is. Wikipedia tells us that:

    in social animals, the alpha is the individual in the community with the highest rank. … Other animals in the same social group may exhibit deference or other symbolic signs of respect particular to their species towards the alpha.

    The status of the alpha is often achieved by means of superior physical prowess, though it can also be determined by social efforts and building alliances.

    From the description, Bunting was quite the alpha.

    Pack behaviour is involves, inter alia, following the alpha. Privileging the wishes of those inside the pack and discounting those outside it is classic pack behaviour.

  16. kvd
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes Lorenzo, granted that the alpha is the highest rank. But the described (by SL) behaviour does not sit with that. I wasn’t going to comment on this post, except that I was struck by the preceding sentence, which ends:

    the residents of Salisbury North are morally incontinent: promiscuous, lazy, venal.

    And wondered where reality left off, and artistic licence began in the film. I mean, as evidence, that statement would be inadmissable, I would hope – however close to the mark it might actually be.

    And also, they might be intimately associated, but ‘pack behaviour’ is not ‘alha male behaviour’.

  17. kvd
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Apologies for missing a ‘p’ above. Plus the rest is probably badly expressed, but who gives a …

    Lorenzo, that wiki article gives links at the bottom, one of which is to “Leadership”. Have a look at the ‘myths’ section.

  18. Adrien
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    KVD – The alpha male is dominant within a certain context. If Richard Branson turned up at Bunting’s place, all by his whatsey, dressed like a typical citizen of Salisbury North, he would not be regarded as the ‘alpha male’, at least automatically.

    The Nazi regime, the Sov Union in the 1930s showed you be morally incontinent all the way up the hierarchy. All you need is to have a situation where a psycho takes over.

  19. kvd
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, I respect your opinion, so will think about what you’ve said. All I know about ‘groups’ as opposed to ‘packs’ led by an ‘alpha’ is that groups seem to expand their boundaries more accidently than by design. Like soccer hooligans; led by unwitting example to extend/expand their violence, rather than subject to some sort of ‘master’ influence with a particular goal in mind.

    But I repeat: SL’s quite valid comments were based upon her perceptions of the filmmaker’s perceptions of the compulsions involved. Who knows where reality sits in all that?

  20. Posted November 29, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    kvd: my original comment was somewhat short-hand. I meant that Bunting seemed to be the alpha male and he seems to have led what was apparently pack behaviour.

    But a dominant personality directing group behaviour works fine too. As per the myths of leadership section you directed my attention to.

    Either way, it does not seem a perverted moral compass as much as a substitute for one.

  21. Movius
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] It is just one of the factors. The suburbs in question are (or rather were) isolated from the main traffic areas of Adelaide, mostly housing trust, high in unemployment. the local residents have little reason to leave and most importantly the rest of the population has no reason to go there, so they have no reason to kick up any fuss about the state of the place.

  22. TerjeP
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    John Howard banning semi automatic rifles in 1996. Bunting killing most of his victims after that. Clearly the Howard reform didn’t stop mass murder.

  23. Cassandra
    Posted August 21, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I actually was going to school with his daughter across the road at this time…paralowie r12. Many of times I slept over her house, spent time with her and her sister mum and dad and never did I find anything out of the ordinary in those 2 years. Her parents where always amazing as I’d had a bit of a horrid childhood and actually kept me safe one time from my mother after running away. Completely blows my mind to think we had been sleeping on top of these bodies the whole time or her father had done this

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  2. By Skepticlawyer » ‘I had a cunning plan’ on April 5, 2013 at 12:06 am

    […] state gone terribly, terribly wrong, too: this time, the post concerned Australian subject matter: Snowtown. Both topics intersect and reinforce each other today, in a story so ghastly it is difficult to […]

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