In the United States, the name John Bunting is, more likely than not, an unfamiliar one. That’s about to change, however, with the stateside release of the award-winning, emotionally devastating Australian flick The Snowtown Murders. Directed by first-timer Justin Kurzel, the tough-to-watch (in a completely intentional way) film, which opened in limited release Friday (and is also available through IFC's VOD platform), depicts how Bunting, Australia’s most infamous serial killer, carried out his reign of small-town homicide and terror, a murder spree that tallied 11 victims from 1992 through 1999.
Amongst native Aussies, the reputation surrounding Bunting’s horrific story is that it’s the “Bodies in Barrels” case, labeled as such after eight of his victims’ bodies were found in barrels of acid, stashed inside a closed-down bank in the South Australian community of Snowtown. But, with The Snowtown Murders, Kurzel hopes to paint a different picture of the infamous events.
The film’s main character isn’t Bunting (who’s portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Henshall), but rather 16-year-old Jamie Vlassaskis (rookie actor Lucas Pittaway), an abused and troubled kid who’s in need of a male role model. In comes Bunting, who romances Jamie’s equally vulnerable mother and charismatically lures the teenager, along with the disenchanted and seemingly forgotten citizens of Snowtown, into his web of murder.
With a cast of authentic Snowtown locals, an overwhelmingly intense and bleak tone, and a masterful command of implication over on-screen violence, The Snowtown Murders is a punishing yet must-see experience. Complex recently spoke with Kurzel to discuss the delicacies involved with telling such a painful and factual story, why people think the film is more hardcore than it actually is, and the importance of authenticity.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The John Bunting case is an infamous one your native country, yet before The Snowtown Murders, I’d never heard about John Bunting and his killings. It doesn’t seem like a case that’s common knowledge outside of Australia. Have you noticed a difference in reaction from audiences outside of Australia, as opposed to the more personal reaction Australians must have?
In Australia, I think, there’s so much baggage with it. You just mention “Snowtown” and everyone’s got an opinion about it. I also think that when the media first reported on it, and the guys were arrested and the shop of horrors was revealed, it was a very macabre, sensationalist type of reporting; there was very, very little writing about the community and the people behind it. There wasn’t much of the human side to it. So that was the biggest surprise to me when I first read the script and started researching and reading through the transcripts, that it gave me this completely different perspective.
Overseas, though, I think everyone is just more focused on what’s on the screen; they’re looking at it more as a piece of cinema. They’re probably not distracted as much about the morality involved, as far as whether anyone should even tell this story or not. That kind of debate probably isn’t as strong as it was in Australia.
Is this case something that you’ve always been fascinated by, even before you decided to make the movie?
Well, I came from the area where it happened, so I had a natural interest in it. I grew up about five minutes from where the murders took place, and, I don’t know, I think I had the same prejudices as everyone else. When it happened, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh, what a bunch of fucking freaks.” I had no idea about the Jamie story, and just the dynamics of this man coming into this community, empowering them, and creating these vigilante groups. That was never really reported in the media, so I was really shocked and surprised when I read the script and got this point-of-view of this kid.
I completely understood it. The idea of a young man from this area who’s looking for a father figure is something I could connect to straight away; growing up in the area, there were so many young boys desperately searching for male figures to look up to. And I thought it was such an interesting thing that this kid Jamie found that kind of father figure in a serial killer, even though he didn’t know he was one. I thought that was just a really unique relationship.
Entering the story through Jamie’s point-of-view is what really separates The Snowtown Murders from other films about serial killers; oftentimes, it’s either seen through the cops’ eyes, or the killers themselves.
I would never have done it if it was from John’s point-of-view, because I couldn’t see how you would do it. I just wasn’t that interested in doing a body-count film, and I wasn’t interested in breaking down the psychology of a psychopath—I was more interested in the corruption of innocence, how a young boy like this is led into the gardens of Hell. That was far more interesting to me, personally.
I guess my biggest question, as was Shaun’s [Grant, the screenwriter] was, “What would I have done? If I was a 16-year-old kid and I lived in an apathetic world and was letting shit just happen to me, as if I deserved it, and then along comes this guy who says, ‘What’s happened to you is wrong, and this is what we’re gonna do about it.’” I at least had an understanding as to why Jamie would look for answers in a figure like John.
So that interested me enormously, and I’d heard about scripts that were floating around about the Snowtown murders, and they were from John’s perspective or from cops’ perspective. And there were cops in this one, too, the first draft that I read—there was a courtroom drama in the end, as well. But I said to Shaun and the producers that I wasn’t interested in that, and that what I was interested in was entering the story completely through Jamie’s point-of-view.
Shaun had already done that throughout the script, but I wanted to focus on that and make the ending about the moment where he either becomes a killer or not, where he falls into the serial killer role or he doesn’t, as opposed to the practicality of the events. I wasn’t that interested in how they got caught, or how the police did or did not catch them; I was much more interested in the journey of this boy, which I thought was incredibly powerful.
The entire cast, except for Daniel Henshall (who plays John Bunting) is made up of first-time actors from the Snowtown area. How immediately did you know that using untrained, born-and-bred locals was the best way to tell this story?
Yeah, I knew straight away. The idea of getting a whole bunch of other actors to come in and populate this area was something that I didn’t think would work. I felt the community was a very, very important element in the film; there needed to be a truth and a sincerity to what you see on the screen. It had to be something that you believed. I was also interested in the idea that John Bunting wasn’t from the area—he was an outsider who came into this community. So, right away, I wanted to cast someone to play him who wasn’t from the area. Dan had never done a film before, but he was from Sydney and he was an experienced actor.
I was very adamant about the fact that I didn’t want to cast this community and then just swing a camera around and shoot them. It was really important that I was able to find people who I thought were going to be brave enough to give themselves to the production. I also had incredible performance instincts that I could direct, but the casting was really long and tough. To find the people you had in your mind, and also the tone of someone who has the ability to go to some pretty dark places, to get those three things was really tough. The thing I’m most proud of in the film is the level of performances we got from those guys; I think they’re very complex and sophisticated.