Justin Kurzel first made his name with his breakout film Snowtown, a true crime murder story that shone an unflattering light on small town Australia. Following some missteps, Nitram is a solid return to form as well as a return to similar territory. It’s based on the Port Arthur massacre, the 1996 mass killing that cost the lives of 35 people.
We first meet Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) as he lights fireworks in his parent’s garden, to the immediate annoyance of his neighbours. He cavorts with the delirious joy of a vandal. Bryant is an adult with obvious mental difficulties. He receives a pension and is on medication, living with his folks who can barely handle his whims and behavior. He has a childlike mentality of immediate demands and petulant, hyperventilating tantrums. His ability to fend for himself in the world is limited to non-existent. To pay for a surfboard he starts going door-to-door and offering to mow lawns. Doing so he meets Helen (Essie Davis), an eccentric but wealthy woman who takes a shine to him. He has soon moved into her dilapidated mansion with her many dogs. This is much to the chagrin of his mother (Judy Davis), who is warily suspicious and a little bit jealous.
Kurzel is a master at building tension of a tragedy foretold. His brother Jed Kurzel’s sound design plays a large part in this, exaggerating every loud noise as if the fireworks are going off in our heads as well as Bryant’s. Germain McMicking’s camera frequently catches the golden magic hour light which by association with the subject matter begins to have a tinge of urine to it. The performances are likewise brilliantly played. Judy Davis breathes humanity into a long-suffering guardianship that will never get better. And Anthony LaPaglia is likewise superb as perhaps the last person to really care for Bryant but who is struggling with his own disappointments. Jones, to a large extent, carries the film. His face reflects the rapidly changing weather of his thoughts from childish happiness, to wonder, confusion, blankness and panting rage.
The problem with dealing with true events of this magnitude of suffering is all about perspective. Where do you put the camera when the man responsible for these deeds himself took along a camcorder and lined it up and started shooting? Let’s start with the title. ‘Nitram’ was Bryant’s nickname at school, where he was a victim of bullying. So is the film’s use of this title participating in that bullying or pointing to it as a cause? Bryant’s actual name is never mentioned, likewise his parents. Is this omission an attempt to make sure the film doesn’t create notoriety. We see Bryant watching the reports of the Dunblane massacre and his fascination suggests that the media contributes to a cycle of violence by simply reporting it.
Other omissions actually soften Bryant’s character. There are no scenes of animal torture, for instance. There are other contributing factors Nitram highlights: a scene with a drizzly psychiatrist suggests the mental health care provided was less than complete. His mum and dad’s good cop bad cop routine is so ineffective they can hardly keep it up themselves. And the avid greed with which gun dealers turn a blind eye to the man’s obvious irresponsibility when he turns up at the store with no license and a duffle bag of cash and starts to drool over their wares is nauseating.
The biggest omission comes with Kurzel’s bold choice to not show the actual violence. Before the event he also shows a god’s eye view shot of the popular tourist attraction. The families are moving about like ants on a picnic blanket. In some ways, this shot sums Nitram up. There is a terrible aloofness, an inability to really get to grips with what is about to happen so far below. This is not through any failing of the film or the filmmaker, but simply because these events are, even after close and careful examination, utterly incomprehensible.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty