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In Snowtown, Daniel Henshall produces a career-making turn as John Bunting, the country’s worst serial killer Words: TOM STURROCK

One of the most disturbing scenes in Snowtown shows a teenage boy being pinned down and raped by a male relative. The assault takes place in the carpeted hallway of their Adelaide council house while the cricket plays on TV in the background, the drone of the commentary the only soundtrack.

This contrast – the horrific overlaid by the everyday, the deviant silhouetted by the banal – echoes throughout the film. It exists vividly in the depiction of John Bunting, the ringleader of the ‘bodies in barrels’ killers, as a likeable, knockabout Aussie bloke who just happens to be a vicious psychotic.

Daniel Henshall, the 29-year-old Sydneysider who portrays Bunting, agrees the veneer of ordinariness, and the brutality with which it is torn apart, underpins the film’s power.

“When the murders are taking place, you’ve got kids riding past on their bikes. It translates that it’s every-day,” Henshall says.

“The terrifying thing about the film is the domesticity of it. They sit down and have a cup of tea during a murder. These normal activities are corrupted. These acts and then the violence – it’s so polarising.”

Bunting and his mates killed 11 people, at least, before they were caught – their victims were tortured in ghastly ways before being strangled, their corpses melted down in barrels of acid.

Prior to shooting, Henshall and first-time director Justin Kurtzel lived for several months in the area where the murders began and recruited much of the film’s cast from the local population. This unorthodox approach, though, was rewarded; the unknowns deliver blistering performances and lend the film a bottomless authenticity. Lucas Pittaway, picked out at a shopping centre and cast alongside Henshall as the second lead, gives a searing performance as the teenager caught in Bunting’s web.

“The boy wonder,” Henshall says of his young co-star. “Who knew? Who knew? There were glimpses of it in the auditions. But who knew that he was going to blow it out of the water the way he did? It was a complete risk.

“And to know how well the film was going to be received, none of us could gauge that. We were up against it. There were groups in Adelaide who didn’t want the film to be made – the housing commission didn’t want us to shoot in the area. We could have lost locations at any time if a housing commission car had driven past and told us to fuck off, and they had the right to. This intensity created an environment – ‘Right we have to do this. Let’s fucking go for it, hold hands and jump off that cliff’.”

Immersing himself in the community also allowed Henshall to form an understanding of where Bunting came from and how he dragged others in his murderous wake.
“Being there for three months, I got to know it pretty well,” he says. “I didn’t talk about John Bunting but I understood how a manwith charisma could suck them in.

“He was only 5’4, he comes into a community he’s not part of and wins them over. How does he do that? He must have an amazing ability with people. From all accounts, from people who had six degrees of separation, he was really normal – he fixed your car, he made you dinner, he looked after your kids. Isn’t it unnerving?”

By way of demonstration, Henshall, softly spoken and slightly tousled, slips back into Bunting-mode, still affable, but shot through with menace. Damn right it’s unnerving.

“‘Hey mate – how are you? You good? You want something to eat or drink? Sit down. Wanna check out what I did out back?’ And then it flips on a heartbeat, you know?”

Henshall’s performance is nuanced enough and confronting enough in its own right, but there is a rhyme with other ocker-villain roles – John Jarratt in Wolf Creek and, more patently, Eric Bana’s turn in Chopper. Henshall acknowledges the reference but keeps it at arm’s length.

“He’s conversational, you kind of want to be on his side,” he says. “I guess there’s a similarity there. But we tried to steer clear of that – Eric Bana is brilliant in Chopper and the film is heightened, but we made a very different film. “

Indeed, Wolf Creek invokes familiar B-grade thrills – with distinction, admittedly – and Chopper is leavened by beats of absurdity and black humour. But Snowtown is, by any standards, unremittingly bleak, a trait Australian films have been criticised for in the past.

There is a long list of indie films, some boasting big-name Aussie stars – Heath Ledger in Candy, Cate Blanchett in Little Fish – that, while not necessarily bad films, fail to catch fire. They are too earnest, too self-conscious. Above all, some Australian films lack mongrel. Snowtown, though, does not. It is a junkyard dog that sinks its teeth in and doesn’t let go.

“It’s interesting – I’ve got friends who go, ‘Fuck, I’m so sick of seeing depressing Australian films. That’s not this country’,” Henshall says. “And it’s not this country, but they’re definitely parts of this country. And it seems that the cinema that we have – we have our own aesthetic and we do that really well. There’s a real raw, dirty nature to it – we do it like nobody else.“

Bunting justifies his actions as being part of “an Australian tradition”. And, in Australian film, Snowtown belongs to the burgeoning tradition of crime flicks with indie licks, thriving, perhaps, because the criminal element fosters a sense of urgency – the sense that something is at stake – sometimes otherwise absent.

Snowtown shares a cinematographer with last year’s Animal Kingdom – a crime film elevated by performances from well-known stars – making comparisons inevitable. But Snowtown, with its no-name cast, cuts that film off at the knees. Henshall, though reluctant to cede the entire Australian industry to stories about armed robbers and killers, agrees that stories about crime compel.

“Beyond the success of Animal Kingdom and Chopper ten years ago, I don’t think we should pigeon hole Australian cinema because we don’t just shoot crime films,” he says. “But crime fascinates. When things go on in your society – that you’re part of – that you couldn’t believe would happen, you want to know why. Cinema attempts to explain that and I think that's exciting.

Read our review of the stunning Snowtown here


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Snowtown's Daniel Henshall: John Bunting was 'unnerving'
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