In April 1996, a man named Martin Bryant carried out a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding another 23. Nitram follows him in the weeks leading up to the event, fictionalizing an all too real chapter in recent history in an attempt to gain some insight into how such horrors were able to unfold.
Having previously directed the adaptations The Snowtown Murders and True History of the Kelly Gang, filmmaker Justin Kurzel returns to the familiar territory of Australian true crime. Horrors ripped from the headlines suit his style for the same reason that Macbeth did in 2015; he’s an expert in filling each frame with a sense of impending tragedy. In Nitram, even the simplest domestic scenes inside the Bryant family home seem to have had the light and life sucked from them. And even in the film’s gentlest moments, Kurzel never lets the audience forget the film’s hopeless destination.
Nitram features a magnetic lead performance from Caleb Landry Jones. An awkwardly hulking figure, the title character spends much of film lurking behind a glazed expression and a scowl, often seeming checked out from the world around him and rarely giving the sense that he fully understands what is going on. When Nitram’s emotions do come to the surface, they often arrive all at once and completely out of control, with surges of pure fury, utter panic and euphoria bursting upwards with startling force.
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At home, Nitram’s parents try to provide the emotional guard rails that he doesn’t possess. But from the very first scene, it’s clear their efforts are doomed. Based on the aforementioned Bryant, the character first appears as he sets off a volley of fireworks into the sky, seemingly delighted by the violence of the explosions and the aggravation it causes his neighbors. Nitram’s mother (Judy Davis) watches on frostily. Later, she tries to take a firm hand while her husband (Anthony LaPaglia) employs a lighter touch, but neither is able to fully get their arms around their son or the strange and frightening impulses inside him. From the off, Nitram makes it clear that the central family dynamic is too worn for there to be any hope of change.
The structures in place for such situations are equally unable to do much good. The psychiatrist gives Nitram pills to stabilize his moods and letters to ensure his pension checks continue to arrive, but that’s about it. Blowing himself up with firecrackers as a child did nothing to deter the title character from his destructive inclinations. Stumbling into a fortune, finding a soulmate of sorts and even traveling the world as an adult also seem to reach nowhere near the core of his anger.
In dramatic terms, the sense of inevitability which Kurzel’s film conjures makes sense for a story to which the ending is already known. But it also raises a greater question, and one which was asked a lot when the project was announced — why tell this story at all?
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It might be unfair to ask a film like Nitram to offer a concrete explanation for the “why” of it all since no one seems to have those answers, but there is a case to be made that the decision to tell this story brings with it a responsibility to do more than simply re-stage its horrors. This question of purpose feels especially vital since we are once again examining a man who stole countless lives while reducing his victims to off-screen screams and title card statistics.
As a movie character, Nitram is unquestionably humanized by the amount of screen time he receives and the equal focus given to the gentler, goofier, more childlike sides of his personality. The film offers shreds of explanation too, highlighting the man’s mental health problems and social isolation, but it never pretends to have a clear understanding for why he went on to make the vile decisions that he did. One could read this ambiguity as an honest depiction of a tragedy for which there is no easy explanation or one could accuse Nitram of being a film fascinated by a killer with nothing clear to say about him.
Perhaps because Nitram is so unable to zone in on the “why” of it all, Kurzel decides to come down twice as hard on the “how,” positioning the film as a firmly anti-gun production. Maybe we can’t ever really know the mechanisms by which Bryant came to his murderous conclusion, but we know the machinery that allowed him to claim so many victims. The scenes of Nitram building out his arsenal are chilling as a series of salesman place military hardware into the hands of someone brazenly unstable, a child’s delight lighting up the killer’s eyes as he plays with his new toys. The title cards, which come silently on to the screen at the very end and provide the details of Bryant’s rampage, highlight both the swiftness with which Australia took action and how inadequate those actions are beginning to appear. It’s a gut-punching coda that ultimately puts the film in service of a deeply worthy cause.
The question of purpose still lingers, of what was achieved by reliving these crimes and humanizing the man who perpetrated them. But thanks to the sense of slow-motion horror that Jones and Kurzel create, Nitram remains a relentlessly intriguing film.
Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.