Film releases: November 18

During Snowtown first-aid nurses should be on hand to visit all parts of the auditorium. There will be a fainting person in Row E, someone throwing up in Row L, and several people needing resuscitation in Rows P, Q, R and S. Physically the film makes you sick. So much torturing, stabbing, strangling. Morally and dramatically it is a near-masterpiece.

A revolting film will not always prove, in later years, a great one. But it happens quite often. Un Chien Andalou, Psycho, Blue Velvet: the shock of the hitherto unspeakable and unshowable, released to prove that art really can address anything.

Snowtown, a first feature by director Justin Kurzel from a skilful script by Shaun Grant, recreates a true story. A homophobe and his cronies maimed, mutilated and murdered a dozen people in an Adelaide suburb in the 1990s. Reason? The victims were gay, drug-dependent or otherwise, in the punishers’ minds, dodgy. Lead killer John Bunting’s mentally troubled son and accomplice Jamie, played by Lucas Pittaway (eerily resembling the late Heath Ledger), was jailed too, though the film pleads that he was a schizophrenic. Snowtown is told largely through Jamie’s eyes, gaining the power of his innocent, or partly innocent, vision.

Bunting is brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Henshall, a bluff, twinkle-eyed beardie who never stops smiling, nor looking people directly, candidly in the eyes. He seems wise beyond his and their years. No wonder his hangers-on hang on to him: he is like a creepy Jesus. “Rid ye the world of perverts and drug-dependents,” he seems to say, and behold, they help him rid it.

The film’s horror is twofold. There is the graphic depiction of pain, torment and death. Then there is the grisly fascination Henshall’s Bunting continues to exercise, for all that we and the characters try to resist it. Of the habit of slaying undesirable members of the community, this certitude-blessed antihero merely says: “It’s an Australian f**king tradition.” It is almost the only time he raises his voice. But some people, he clearly feels, just have to be told the obvious. Snowtown presents a world of moral nightmare and sits us right inside it, to feel the pulse and processes of evil as if they were our own.

I lost touch with the Twilight saga by being absent from reviewing duty when number two came out. Now in Breaking Dawn Part 1 I have no idea what is going on. Bella (Kristen Stewart) has apparently fast-forwarded herself into betrothal: she is about to marry hot vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson). Hotter werewolf Jake (Taylor Lautner) is fast-forwarding himself through the Pacific Northwest forests, raging with jealousy. The Bella/Edward honeymoon, compounding desire with vampiric frustration, breaks the four-poster double bed in an island off Rio de Janeiro. The supporting characters are as spooky as ever: white make-up, coloured contact lenses, off-blond hairpieces. They and the audience are suitably aghast when a crucial character misses her period…

The whole film keeps missing its period(s). It runs on like some vast non-stop sentence, a narrative at full tide under a full moon. Happily, director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) has the gothic chops for this material and Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography is bravura. The main actors understand that their characters are pop-iconic artefacts, wired for sound and movement, so they need merely flick the bio-animatronic switches: their looks and charisma do the rest. It’s all a lot of fun. For some movies you don’t need intelligence, you just need faith, gullibility and a state of happy surrender.

Those items kept the true-life trans-American tripsters going, in the psychedelically coloured bus they drove on their Magic Trip. Documentarists Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have edited raw footage once shot by Ken One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Kesey, Neal Cassady (Kerouac chum) and other Beat Era gadabouts, who set out to celebrate 1964 in their own DIY road movie. Alas, they ran into disenchantments as numerous as end-of-summer roadworks. The aftermath of JFK’s assassination; the campaigning rise of Republican Barry Goldwater…

Kesey and Co still gambolled about, in saturated 16mm colour, as if their lives depended on it, along with their self-bestowed nickname, “The Merry Pranksters”. Gibney made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Ellwood was his editor on both), so he specialises in American Gotterdämmerung stories. This one becomes touching, even minor-key-tragic. At journey’s end the Pranksters meet Kerouac himself, their idol, sitting silent, isolated and grumpy at a party, and Allen Ginsberg – the Walt Whitman de leurs jours – a decade after his monumental rejection of an age, “Howl”.

When in doubt, says American cinema, go to New Orleans. In that city of funky allure, tired plots can be window-dressed with exoticism. They can even avail themselves – post-Katrina – of a sense of weighty doom. In Welcome to the Rileys married plumber James Gandolfini flees Indianapolis and wife Melissa Leo, fetching up on the wrong side of Bourbon Street with an under-age hooker played by Kristen Twilight Stewart. (So that’s why this two-year-old film is now unshelved.) She becomes the daughter he lost; Ms Leo becomes the plot he and we lost; the dialogue and ponderous drama got lost even before the camera rolled.

There is more potboiling portentousness in Justice. Nicolas Cage escaped New Orleans after Bad Lieutenant 2, but evidently he was hunted down and returned. He plays a husband joining a mysterious revenge syndicate, led by Guy Pearce, to secure the killing of his wife’s rapist. A few scenes later, no surprise, it is his turn to lend a victim an avenger’s homicidal help. The skies turn dark with melodrama; claptrap crackles in the clouds. Do yourself a favour: stay out of New Orleans.

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