Directed by Justin Kurzel. Starring Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, David Walker, Louise Harris 18 cert, Cineworld, Dublin, 119 min

IN 2004, THREE men were convicted following the discovery of eight dismembered bodies in barrels at Snowtown in south Australia. The killings form the spine of this discombobulating coming-of-age tale.

Newcomer Lucas Pittaway is Jamie, a numb 16-year-old who lives with his mum and two brothers in one of Adelaide’s less salubrious suburbs. Their lives are chaotic, deprived and menaced by violent thugs and sexual predators.

It doesn’t take much for the beleaguered clan to fall under the spell of mother’s charismatic new boyfriend, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) or indeed, for the entire neighbourhood to follow suit.

A mouthy homophobe and self- styled vigilante, Bunting promises to rid the locale of junkies and homosexuals. He convenes meetings around the kitchen table, where angered parents vent and conjure punishments befitting child molesters. It all sounds perfectly reasonable.

Nobody seems to mind or notice when people start unexpectedly “moving free state”, least of all young Jamie, a dead-eyed teen who enjoys having a father figure to cook and go biking with. By the time he realises the terrible truth about his warped new mate, the youngster has already been indoctrinated into Bunting’s gang of simple-minded accomplices.

The grimy social realism and gurgling torture scenes place director Justin Kurzel’s startling debut midway between Animal Kingdomand Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. But Snowtownrefuses such niceties as an antihero or a moral centre. Jamie cries over Bunting’s actions, but lacks the wherewithal to respond appropriately.

A flawed, dazed mediator, Jamie leads viewers into an uncertain stupor from which we, like him, can’t quite put it all together until it’s far too late. An insistent trance- like score only heightens the sense of asphyxiation.

In this spirit, the film doesn’t present easy answers or motivations. Can Bunting’s murderous hatred of drug users, the obese and gays really have come down to welfare fraud?

In a film defined by nihilism and horrors, this might be the scariest idea of them all.