Trigger Warning: Contains discussion of events some may find disturbing.
Justin Kurzel’s film wrestles with its controversial, reviled subject – and paints a bizarre, uncomfortable, but oddly fascinating picture of a misfit who would become the most horrific mass murderer in our nation’s history.
As a filmmaker, Justin Kurzel is not afraid to be bold in his choice of subject matter. After all, his feature debut, Snowtown, delved deep into one of the most shocking chapters of Australian history, presenting an unflinching and disturbing look at the events surrounding the Snowtown murders. Other films he’s made include the 2015 version of the Bard’s bloodiest play Macbeth (in my opinion one of the best cinematic renditions of Shakespeare’s work) and the rather less impressive adaptation of Assassin’s Creed from 2016. He returned to work in Australia with 2019’s Stan original, The True History of the Kelly Gang, which presented a revisionist view of the legendary outlaw and his crew.
In reading this resume, it is clear that Kurzel is interested in disturbed, violent male protagonists. And so Nitram sets out to explore another of these figures – the perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre. Even before cameras rolled, there was a backlash. Bryant’s horrific actions are barely 25 years old, and there are still plenty of Australians that remember them vividly. The objections were most strongly voiced by Tasmanians, who have long struggled with said actions being unfairly associated with their state as a whole. Various groups called for the film to be cancelled, and once it was confirmed to be in production, these changed to calls for a boycott. It was worried that the film would glorify the events, and try to portray Bryant as a figure worthy of sympathy.
Nitram has no interest in glorifying its subject, nor indeed engendering any sympathy for it. From the title it is clear Kurzel is not interested in adding to the man’s desire to create a legend around himself. While it is understandable that people take issue with the story being told in the first place, if the same logic prevailed then there would be no films about the Holocaust, or any other violent and tragic crime throughout human history. While every crime has its victims, few are so shocking and heinous that they galvanise real change in a society. And Port Arthur certainly did that. One of John Howard’s lasting effects on Australian society was the immediate change to gun laws.
Kurzel doesn’t attempt to explain Nitram. Instead, he merely points his camera at the character and uses a series of vaguely connected vignettes into his day-to-day life in suburban Tasmania to suggest how such a character might have evolved. His frustrated, long-suffering parents try their best to understand Nitram. They attempt to engage him with the world, to shake him out of his indifference – but to no avail. They each deal with this differently, as Judy Davis as the mother is critical and dismissive of his more far-fetched notions, like when he wants to buy a surfboard despite the presence of other underwater gear gathering dust in the shed. Anthony LaPaglia internalises and stifles a lot of his rage and grief while trying his best to keep the peace between his wife and son.
A Glimpse of Humanity
Nitram’s behaviour towards others is at best indifferent, even to his parents. He lashes out in a childlike manner when asked to do something, like when asked to change for dinner, he re-enters the dining room in nothing but his underwear. His developmental problems are clear, but there is a dark, violent undercurrent to them. A story told by the mother at the 40-minute mark, involving Nitram at 5 deliberately avoiding her at a fabric store – and the pleasure he seemed to take in her distress – is just one of many spine-chilling scenes.
The only time we see Nitram really engage with another individual is his interactions with Helen. Trying to drum up some cash he goes door to door with the family lawnmower, asking if people need their grass cut. He comes across Helen, a lonely older woman, who adopts him in a similar manner to the 10 stray cats and dogs she has roaming around her house. This relationship disturbs Nitram’s mother particularly, but despite her objections, Nitram moves in with Helen and their bond grows. While Kurzel stops short of blaming any one factor for what is to come, it is the tragic end to this relationship that is presented as the catalyst for Nitram’s apathy to morph into full-blown nihilism.
Knowing How the Story Ends Doesn’t Make it Easier
Nitram spirals into a depression, keeping to himself. When he goes to the local gun store and purchases some powerful automatic weapons, we know as an audience what is coming. I had a lump in my throat as I watched the last 20 minutes, the conclusion looming large over the rest of the film. Mercifully, Kurzel doesn’t show any of the horrific, well-documented events, electing to cut away.
Nitram is by no means an easy film to watch. Similarly to when I reviewed the hard-hitting documentary Burning, Nitram is difficult to recommend as a piece of entertainment. There’s a palpable sense of foreboding and dread that permeates the film, even in the seemingly mundane attempts to capture Nitram’s daily life. However, as a dramatic glimpse into the life of a monster – and the suggested means by which this monster was created – it is deeply engrossing. It is anchored by fine performances from the cast. Texan actor Caleb Landry-Jones is hauntingly close to the real-life images of the man, and LaPaglia and Davis as his parents give some of the best performances of their long careers. It is not a comfortable nor an easy watch, by any means, but the unflinching nature of the character study it presents make it very worthwhile. There’s a clear reason why it was the first Australian film in over a decade in competition for this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes.
Check out the trailer here:
Nitram is currently streaming on Stan.