Snowtown’s Bunting: evil serial killer or noble vigilante?

In the mid-1990s, Elizabeth Harvey was struggling to bring up her three sons in a working-class suburb of northern Adelaide in southern Australia. All the men she’d had in her life, until now, had been losers, users or worse. When she caught one taking photos of her sons in their underwear, that was the last straw.

Daniel Henshall plays John Bunting in Justin Kurzel's Snowtown
Daniel Henshall plays John Bunting in Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown

Then, John Bunting arrived like a beacon in the night. He was warm, funny, supportive and loving, but above all, protective.

From out of nowhere, Elizabeth and her sons had been blessed with a father figure who’d cook for them, teach the boys to look after themselves and lead the local community group that sought to clean up the neighbourhood – and I’m not talking about the litter.

Oh. One more thing. He did this by kidnapping those he believed posed a threat, torturing them, killing them and storing their bodies in a disused bank vault that he’d rented in the town of Snowtown, about an hour’s drive north. And he roped in a group of locals to help, including Elizabeth’s eldest son, Jamie.

In Justin Kurzel’s biopic about Australia’s worst mass murderer – in the killings that became known as the “Bodies in the Barrels” murders – the charismatic young man – a mentor and protector – is played with astonishing maturity by twenty nine year old Daniel Henshall – beefed up and bearded to look almost old enough to be his own father.

Walking into the radio studio where we met, I thought I’d stumbled into the wrong room. Still bearded, although more lightly, and with a quiff peeping out from beneath his cloth cap, he looked every bit the meek, mild and cheery man John first appeared to be when he stormed into the lives of Elizabeth and her family.

In his first feature role, Henshall is tasked with bringing to the big screen his country’s most notorious criminal – perhaps the only one to surpass Mark “Chopper” Read (played in his breakthrough role by Eric Bana in the eponymous 2000 biopic) for infamy. Unlike Chopper, who – like our own crazy-criminal Bronson – was pretty much psychopathic from the outset, the frightening thing about Bunting was how normal he seemed when he arrived. Elizabeth wasn’t going to allow another mad man into her home, but Bunting was different. He made bacon and eggs and gave the leftovers to his dog. This was a kind man who’d look after her and her boys.

At one point, as he’s bonding with Jamie, they shave their heads and Henshall becomes the spitting image of Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover 2 – which makes the impending horror feel all the more shocking.

It’s Henshall’s ability to slide gently and convincingly from this loveable chump into one of the most brutal and vicious killers the big screen has ever seen – and even more disturbingly to flit between the two – that make his performance particularly stand out. That this turn is embued with the quirky Australian manner typical of many of the country’s independent film characters just makes the situation all the more unsettling.

He doesn’t have any particular answers to how he managed to deliver such a convincing portrayal of such a complex man.”That’s how it was written. As an actor, you crave a three dimensional character and just take it scene by scene. It wasn’t as sudden a change for me as it was for the audience as I’d been working on it for months. I lived in the area for three or four months, I put on weight and got to know the lay of the land and got to understand the community,” he explains. “They were so embracing of me.”

I wondered whether, despite the horrific nature of his crimes, the local people might have had a grudging respect for the man who made it his mission, Dexter-style, to rid the neighourhood of paeodophiles. Was he an evil serial-killer or a noble vigilante?

“Both,” he’s emphatic. “He thinks he’s a noble vigilante, but he’s actually a blood-lusting serial killer – a psychopath who enjoys watching people dying – and not just dying, but through extreme torture.” Henshall is convinced that Bunting’s actions didn’t just spring from the unfortunate coincidence of finding himself surrounded by such low-life. “He found his area – it would’ve happened regardless. He found his moment to become the man he always was.”

So how did someone who was clearly so unsettled manage to worm his way into such a paranoid, tight-nit community? “Charisma,” barks Henshall. “He’s five foot four,” he exclaimed, almost unable to believe what he was telling me. “Five foot four,” he repeated – as much to convince himself as me. “He was also very average looking – that’s why I got the part! He had a high pitched voice, a slight lisp – he must have been as charismatic as fu – .” It was a shame he stopped himself in mid flow. Somehow, in that Australian accent, it would’ve sounded more like punctuation than an expletive. “It’s not an easy thing to do to come into a community as an outsider and say ‘Hey, listen to me,’ and take over. They felt he was there to rescue them.”

Henshall thanks his lucky stars for what is sure to be a career-making role – flipping from the dad that everyone wants to the neighbour from hell. “It’s brilliant when you get a chance to play a three-dimensional psychopath – you come across as this really welcoming and wonderful saviour who’ll fu(this time he didn’t curb his enthusiasm)ck you over in the same instant. We played him as a man of integrity – a man who loved his family and wanted to protect this family but had these intentions – we didn’t play him as someone who had this intent from the outset, because that would’ve been too obvious. You wouldn’t trust him if he walked into your house and said ‘Would you like some bacon? I want to torture and kill people.’ You wouldn’t trust him. The slow build-up is creepy,” he enthuses. “The banality and the domesticity of it.”

Henshall feels as sorry for the eponymous town itself as he does those affected by Bunting’s violence. “Snowtown gets a bad wrap,” he muses. “Only one murder happened there, the murderers weren’t from Snowtown and tha twas the final storage facility in the disused bank vault.” Oh. So that’s OK then. “Unfortunately for that sleep, country town, the name has become synonymous with the murders.”

It’s not just Snowtown, though, that gives his country an increasing reputation for violence. I don’t want to paint a picture of Australia that it’s like Snowtown or Animal Kingdom – just two films tha thave had success in the last two years. But that’s our flavour – it’s our aesthetic. It’s like Fish Tank or a Ken Loach film – that’s not Britain, but it’s a part of Britain and they have this very British feel to them that only those filmmakers can do and that gives an identity to your cinema. We have a lot of great young directors at the moment who are graduating from commercials and short films to features and their making that leap and giving a very Australian aesthetic. It’s really exciting.” By now, Henshall is almost bursting out of his seat with enthusiasm. “It’s really exciting,” he repeats with even more gusto, “to see some really good films in the last four years form my own country that are doing really well internationally.”

As long as Henshall can master an American accent – and sadly, that’s probably what he’ll need to do to do “really well internationally” himself, as his fellow countrymen Eric Bana, Guy Pearce and Hugh Jackman have done before him – based on this performance, he’s an actor with a tremendously bright future ahead of him – although his slight statue probably won’t open him up to the kind of lead roles Hollywood has offered his predecessors, which will make his career trajectory particularly interesting to observe.

The interview over, I was keen to get out while I still could. Henshall had come across as a charming, earnest and undoubtedly charismatic character. But so had Bunting, at first. OK, so Bunting’s earlier victims had at least done something to draw the attention of a vigilante, which I hope I have not. But as his total crept up to 11, some innocent bystanders got caught in his web. I didn’t join him for lunch.