Two Different Approaches To Murder: 'The Snowtown Murders' and 'Kill List'

You'll have barely neared bottom on your popcorn before you've watched teenage Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and his two younger brothers passively photographed nude by the pedophile across the street. You've also been given to understand how this could happen. The boys' single mum (Louise Harris) bears a defeated, distracted air, and upstanding behavior's a bit thin on the ground in the scabby Australian slum where they live. Poverty, broken windows, broken family structures, substance abuse—you know the story. As The Snowtown Murders (MPI DVD, download, and streaming) unfolds, this based-on-actual-events tale takes an even more disturbing turn.

John (Daniel Henshall) makes for an unlikely shining knight. Short, bearded, intense, friendly in a way that bristles with aggression, he sweeps in and sets about setting things to right. He takes up the task of protecting Jamie and his family by, among other things, chopping up dead kangaroos, muddling the bloody parts in a bucket, and splashing the result across the pedo's doorstep. John also takes a friendly interest in Jamie, who responds to the attention from a strong male role model. The next thing you know, John's asking Jamie to shoot a dog. Soon there are other bodies being stuffed in buckets.

In Australia, the name "Snowtown" carries a charge—the film was released Down Under with just that single name—and most adults there likely already knew the outlines of the most notorious serial killings in the country's history. But director Justin Kurzel's film doesn't need backstory to lend it impact. Shooting in a resolutely rough-and-tumble style (natural light, grotty locations), he captures the depressing effects of suburban poverty to, well, depressing effect. Other than the occasional burst of pulsing electronic score, he eschews crime-flick gimmickry for an unblinking gaze. (This is not a film for the squeamish or easily disturbed.) Just as importantly, Shaun Grant's script captures the effed-up interpersonal milieu that allows enormously flawed people to look around them and target the flaws of others—from known sexual predators to possible sexual deviants down to the overweight and, ultimately, the inconvenient—and get away with it. In one of the most chilling touches, John forces his victims to leave increasingly unconvincing answering-machine messages explaining their upcoming indefinite absences, but no one calls the police. When life feels this cheap, it's hard for anyone to value it much.

The Snowtown Murders could feel the same, given its subject matter and its unrelentingly grim tone. But Pittaway and Henshall, especially, make it worth sticking with. Henshall's John goes from bluff neighbor to paternal figure to bully and psychopath in shades so subtle that it's understandable how Pittaway's quiet, passive, deeply hungry Jamie might find himself pushed along. (More than once, Jamie brings to mind James Frecheville's "J" from 2010 Australian powerhouse Animal Kingdom.) In the end, after nearly two full hours, Kurzel delivers you to a long, mostly wordless sequence during which you realize that Jamie must decide what kind of person he really is. That neither you, nor he, is really sure given all that's happened is a testament to this film's power.

Casual murder as a fact of life gets an altogether more facile rendering in Kill List (MPI DVD, download, and streaming). Jay (Neil Maskell) is a British suburbanite with a hot blonde wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), and a young son. He's not working at the moment, it seems; the fallout from his military service in Iraq hovers in the background as a possible factor, as does a recent unspecified debacle in Kiev. But after his best mate/army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up for a boozy dinner party—part friendly get-together, part recruiting effort—he agrees to go back to the old gig. And this being a movie, that gig is, of course, hitman.

But hold your eye-rolls for a moment. Director Ben Wheatley shows a deft hand here—Kill List is almost as realistic in its personal particulars and its shooting style as The Snowtown Murders, at least at first. Maskell is sharp as an everyday bloke with a bit of brood to him; Smiley makes a perfect partner/foil, the sly, dissolute wit to Maskell's straightman. Once they start on their list of targets, the relationship between them retains its mate-y rhythms and depth, but the film around them starts to shift. Their victims thank them humbly before being popped between the eyes. Gal's goony date from the dinner party (Emma Fryer) shows up in a parking lot outside their hotel one midnight. And if you want to avoid hints that might function as spoilers, stop reading here.

It doesn't take much filmgoing savvy to spot fairly early on that Kill List is working its way up to a big twist. And as twists go, it's impressive, if not wholly successful. Perhaps it's the twist's couple of obvious (and not so) antecedents. Perhaps it's the way the whole thing doesn't quite add up. More likely it's the thoroughgoing realism, emotional and otherwise, that fuels the film through its early reels and which makes the leap-the-plot takes at the end seem a bit far to go. Not that Kill List isn't well-made and enjoyable, but don't say you weren't (sort of) warned.