“When are you gonna grow some balls, mate?”
Australia’s a pretty chilled out country. At least, I’d like to think that’s true. We don’t have mass shootings, or serial killers or violent, organised crime. Until we do. Because one or two instances of each of those things has popped up in this country in my lifetime. That means, on those rare occasions when something that terrible does happen here, it’s massive, inescapable news. After all, we’re Aussies, we don’t do this stuff… Much. So back in the late 90s, when a heap of dead bodies were found in barrels in an abandoned bank, it seemed inevitable that there’d be a movie about it. What surprises me, is that it took over a decade before we got The Snowtown Murders.
Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) has what is essentially a pretty shit life. His mother’s boyfriend takes nude photos of him and his younger brother. His older brother has sexually assaulted him in the past. And on top of it all, the poor bastard has to live in Adelaide. Adelaide! Salvation arrives in the form of John (Daniel Henshall). Introduced to the family by a friend of their mother, John helps scare the photo taking boyfriend away, then quickly assumes the patriarchal position.
John has extreme views on pedophiles and doesn’t mind dishing out a bit of the old vigilante justice. Soon, he’s rabble rousing the neighbourhood via his local church and several people go missing. People John would accuse of being weak. To John, weakness is personified by sexual deviance, drug abuse and homosexuality. Opinions that he forces on his new step son and protégé, Jamie.
The Snowtown Murders is a dark story, filled with dark characters living in a terrible, terrible world. And amongst all of that, no one comes even close to the dread inducing threats and intimidation of Daniel Henshall as John Bunting. Obviously, as the master mind of the killings that would earn him the title of Australia’s most prolific serial killer, John Bunting was always going to be the standout character. I was ready for that, but I wasn’t ready for just how terrifying Hanshall was. He nails the quiet, simmering scenes. He’s perfect in the loud, violent scenes. He even makes you understand why these people fell under his spell.
This movie had a head start. With its stranger than fiction story about the seedy underside of suburbia, and built in interest from the real world events that were so huge, they were still fresh in people’s minds when it was made a decade after the fact. But it never seemed to me like The Snowtown Murders was taking advantage of that. It takes this horrific story, and makes it even more horrific by populating it with characters so real, that even if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you’d start looking differently at your suburban neighours anyway.