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Australia's worst serial killer, John Bunting, and the accomplices who fell under his spell are profiled in "Snowtown."

With: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, Anthony Groves, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Richard Green, Beau Gosling, Frank Cwertniak, Aasta Brown.

Australia’s worst serial killer, John Bunting, and the accomplices who fell under his spell are profiled in “Snowtown.” An extremely bleak psychological horror-thriller with arty trimmings, pic compels for a couple of reels before muddled plotting sets in and auds are left with no one to connect with when the central character transforms from innocent bystander to participant in Bunting’s crimes. Debut helmer Justin Kurzel guides a predominantly non-pro cast with distinction, but this descent into unremittingly depressing territory will require careful marketing and positive critical notices to attract viewers. Pic opens May 17 in Oz.

Bunting took part in 11 particularly sickening murders in the northern suburbs of Adelaide between 1992 and 1999. Most of the victims’ remains were stored in a disused bank in Snowtown, some 90 miles north of the city. The misconception that the crimes occurred in Snowtown itself has endured ever since.

Instantly evoking memories of Harmony Korine’s “Gummo,” pic unfolds in a suburbia littered with the detritus of a throwaway consumer society and ravaged by despair and hatred. Ahead of Bunting’s arrival, the screenplay centers on Jamie (Lucas Pittaway, excellent), a teen stuck in a nothing existence with his single mother, Elizabeth (Louise Harris), and two younger brothers.

New to the area, Bunting (Daniel Henshall) installs himself as a friendly fixture in Jamie’s house shortly after Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jeffrey (Frank Cwertniak), is exposed as a pedophile. After Jamie is raped by his half-brother, Troy (Anthony Groves), he is swayed by Bunting’s abhorrence of gays and child molesters, and soon embraces him as a father figure.

Best segs show Bunting’s calculated grooming of Jamie and easily manipulated locals Robert (Aaron Viergever) and Mark (David Walker) as future assistants. In concert with vivid scenes of Bunting gathering information on prospective victims at neighborhood drinking sessions, Kurzel casts a stickily tactile atmosphere of mounting dread over the proceedings.

The depiction of the murders — some seen in graphic detail but none, thankfully, containing the hideous extremes documented in court evidence — is less effective than the lengthy preamble. Despite the pic’s best efforts to create sympathy for Jamie, viewers have little option but to be appalled by his participation, no matter how reluctant he appears. Auds also may be confused by editing that clouds timelines and fails to adequately detail the social-security frauds that accompanied the killing spree. The result is a movie that can be admired in many respects from a distance but is progressively less emotionally engaging.

Perfs by area locals are uniformly impressive, particularly Pittaway’s controlled slide from boredom to butchery. Henshall, the sole pro thesp, nails the nice guy and the monster beneath whose motives are no more complicated than simply enjoying the act of murder.

Color-drained lensing, grungy production design and thrift-shop costuming create a memorable symphony of sorrow around the lonely victims and disturbed perpetrators. Jed Kurzel’s experimental rock score speaks menace in every note. Other technical work is fine.

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Production: A Madman Entertainment release of a Screen Australia presentation of a Warp Films Australia production, in association with Film Victoria, South Australian Film Corp., Adelaide Film Festival, Omnilab Media. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw. Executive producers, Robin Gutch, Mark Herbert. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Screenplay, Shaun Grant, inspired by the books "Killing for Pleasure" by Debi Marshall, "The Snowtown Murders" by Andrew McGarry.

Crew: Camera (color), Adam Arkapaw; editor, Veronika Jenet; music, Jed Kurzel; production designer, Fiona Crombie; art director, Chris Jobson; costume designers, Alice Babidge, Crombie; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrew McGrath; assistant director, Nathan Croft; second unit camera, Roger Dowling; casting, Allison Meadows. Reviewed at Adelaide Film Festival (Australian Cinema), Feb. 27, 2011. Running time: 114 MIN.

With: With: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, Anthony Groves, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Richard Green, Beau Gosling, Frank Cwertniak, Aasta Brown.

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