Justin Kurzel’s Nitram gets under your skin and eats you alive from the inside – we’re not sure that’s a bad thing in this case.
Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) is a troubled young man. Intellectually challenged and unemotional, Nitram befriends a wealthy neighbour Helen (The Babadook’s Essie Davis) and the two throw money at new cars and lavish things just for the sake of it. Nitram’s emotional turmoil continues to grow and will lead to a fatal and catastrophic event that’ll go down in Australian history.
Nitram is a thoroughly unpleasant film. Really, I have no desire to ever revisit it and even revisiting it for this review, several months after seeing it at BFI London Film Festival, I felt apprehensive about diving into the mind of such a troubled man.
Nitram is based on Martin Bryant (Nitram is Martin spelled backwards), who committed the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre. It’s not that Nitram is particularly gory or scary, but it’s more about its almost mundane approach to such a monster.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Nitram is a rather brilliant film. It never shies away from the tragedy, but also never asks for our forgiveness or sympathy for the main character. Kurzel often fixes the camera on Nitram’s face, as if trying to find a sign of humanity, buried very deep within him, but hopefully just detectable.
The truth, though, is that crumb of humanity never materialises, making Nitram a bleak experience. Not a bad experience, but just a completely exhausting one. Kurzel’s direction is strong, which is exactly what a film like this needs. Kurzel carefully navigates the tricky waters of Nitram’s life and troubles, never justifying anything, simply observing a troubled young man, heading towards his own doom.
Whether or not Nitram should have been made is a valid question and something that overshadows the entire film. The film’s existence has caused plenty of controversy in Australia, with many claiming it’s only harmful to revisit the tragedy and to fictionalise it. It’s a fair comment, but the bigger question is, what does the world gain from Nitram?
We can’t brush unpleasant, traumatic things under the rug. Nitram justifies its existence by challenging us, forcing us to accept this is reality. The film is of course a work of fiction, but rooted deeply in reality, which allows us to look at real issues with a sense of security. It’s real, but it’s also not.
The smartest thing Kurzel does is never showing the actual massacre. Films are above all things about spectacle but Kurzel holds back from making trauma into entertainment. If anything, Nitram makes a strong case about gun control. We see him walk into the cafe, order some fruit and a juice and sit down. He then proceeds to eat and watches the people around him, before setting up a video camera on the table and pulling out a gun from his bag.
The rest is history. We don’t need to see the following bloodbath or hear the desperate cries of help. Unlike Gus Van Sant’s school shooting drama Elephant, Kurzel doesn’t force us to watch a tragedy unfold. Knowing the events of that day is painful enough. It’s an admirable and respectful approach, one that respects the victims.
Caleb Landry Jones is remarkable as Nitram. Emotionally detached and eerily void of anything remotely human, Jones brings his trademark weirdness to Nitram. He’s been creepy before, in films like Get Out and Antiviral, but he deploys it here differently. There’s a looseness to him; like his whole body is made up of rubbery bones, barely functioning, as if he’s uninterested in existing.
Essie Davis as Helen and Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia as Nitram’s parents bring context to the story. Anthony LaPaglia is particularly impressive, but the film’s most effective scene is one where Nitram’s mother recounts how a young Nitram used to revel in her distress as he purposely disappeared from under her eyes. It’s quietly devastating, fully illustrating just how monstrous Nitram is, and always has been.
Nitram is, by no means, an easy film. It’s barely rewarding, there’s no catharsis and certainly no happy ending. But it’s a remarkable piece of cinema, visually strong with great performances. Approach this one with caution and maybe watch a nice, safe Disney film afterwards.
Nitram is in cinemas July 1.