What if a time capsule, buried many years ago, contained a clue to a long-unsolved murder? This is the darkly entertaining premise underpinning Stan’s six-part original series Black Snow: a mostly well-made murder mystery that starts strong but runs out of gas as it approaches its twist-filled ending.
The narrative is based in 1994 and 2019, the former timeline allowing the screenwriters (creator Lucas Taylor, Boyd Quakawoot and Beatrix Christian) and directors (Sian Davies and Matthew Saville) to give agency to their 17-year-old victim Isabel (Talijah Blackman-Corowa).
The latter is an “opening old wounds” trajectory in which Travis Fimmel’s sleepy-eyed detective, James Cormack, attempts to solve the case and fleece a small town of its secrets.
Isabel is first seen in dramatic early vision, running through a burning cane field. After jumping forward in time, Cormack is introduced in a more innocuous way: at a pub, operating a claw machine. But things get weird when he does an Edward Norton from Flight Club, asking a bloke to punch him in the face and “put your bloody hips into it”. This moment adds another kind of mystery: what the hell is wrong with this guy? Without that scene, Cormack’s weary demeanour and thousand-yard stare would be interpreted as just another detective who’s lethargic and/or overworked; with it, we wonder whether there’s something untoward or perverse going on.
Cormack’s boss agrees to assign him to the case, on the proviso he won’t complain about the Queensland heat – signposting the show as belonging to a genre I call the “bugger me dead, it’s hot” action/thriller (Stan delivered a great one last year in The Tourist).
Upon arrival at the cop shop in the town of Ashford, the local senior sergeant (played by the under-used Kym Gyngell) delivers him a bloody-strayan greeting: “So, you’re the finger up my arsehole.” But he is mostly obliging. Isabel’s sister Hazel (Jemmason Power) is reluctant to have the past dredged up, with her evangelical Christian family – including their pastor father Joe (Jimi Bani) – still struggling with Isabel’s murder, and complex feelings resurfacing after the capsule’s unveiling. Isabel’s death sent ripples through the town’s South Sea Islander community, allowing the series to open up a space to explore Australia’s treatment and exploitation of migrants.
To mark the local school’s 100-year anniversary, the time capsule ceremony welcomes former students to retrieve old items (an audio cassette here, a VHS copy of Thelma & Louise there) and share their schoolyard predictions for the future. Isabel provides an eerie voice from the grave: “In 2019 I predict Ashford will still be full of predators disguised as friends,” she has written, discussing people who “feed on suffering” and pledging to expose them “if they don’t kill me first”. In the great Australian tradition of unhelpful cops (from Chips Rafferty in Wake in Fright to Richard Roxburgh in Blue Murder), the sarg dismisses this message as “teenage angst” – before important revelations make it clear that Isabel’s killer is from Ashford and is not, as he has long believed, an outsider.
The second episode contains a title drop, with Isabel looking up at a roof window, where ashes from burning sugar cane fall like a surreal rain. Things falling from the sky is a great way to ratchet up atmospheric intensity or signal a change of emotions: rain of course being the most common, often used to heighten drama, evoke melancholia or symbolise cleansing and rebirth. The ash falling in Black Snow is more like the blain rain from The Last Wave or the falling frogs in Magnolia, elevating mood and marking a crossing point, with the drama entering a new level of intensity.
I wish that intensity was sustained and there were more visual touches along these lines, particularly as the show moves forward – because the tension drops. The cast are generally impressive but the performances are tonally imbalanced, with Blackman-Corowa bringing a fair degree of gravitas as Isabel but Bani overacting as her evangelical dad. Other cast members include Molly Fatnowna as the younger version of Hazel, and Ziggy Ramo (who co-wrote the score) as Ezekiel, an enigmatic worker visiting from Vanuatu. All the while Fimmel’s weird, somnambulant energy beams in from another reality, as if caught between consciousness and sleep. I’m not sure he’s completely convincing as a detective, though it’s an engaging performance.
There’s a point, relatively early in the runtime (this review encapsulates all six episodes) where it becomes clear the culprit or culprits must be drawn from a reasonably small pool of characters. This isn’t a criticism: it’s part of the format, and guessing who is part of the fun. But (with one or two exceptions) the side characters aren’t particularly engaging, and after a while the drama feels a little by-the-numbers. Still: that time capsule premise is a corker, and the show’s creators extract considerable dramatic mileage from it.