Directed by Justin Kurzel.
Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis.
A fictionalised take on the story of the Port Arthur shooting – the most notorious mass shooting in Australian history.
The 1996 Port Arthur shooting is one of the most horrifying events in recent Australian history, and also among the deadliest mass shootings ever perpetrated. It’s a difficult topic to approach on film, given how raw and devastating it remains for people in Tasmania and the nation as a whole. Nitram, though, places the story into the reliable hands of director Justin Kurzel, who previously reached into the dark heart of Aussie true crime for his bleak, incendiary 2011 film Snowtown.
Once again, Kurzel handles this harrowing story with complexity and nuance, delivering a story which highlights the real world horror while also refusing to wallow in gore and exploitation. He imagines his title character – only known and credited by the titular nickname – as an outcast who spends more time with firecrackers than friends, but resists the temptation to allow him to become a cartoon.
As much credit as Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant deserve for this characterisation, it’s Caleb Landry Jones’s central performance which really catches the eye. Jones won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his work, and it’s easy to see why. He perfectly essays the unpredictability of Nitram and gives real specificity to the character’s pain, when broad-strokes caricature might have been tempting. One of the striking things about Port Arthur is the lack of a clear motive, and Jones makes that believable. He’s a guy who built up an arsenal of firearms and planned his murders, but chose targets without much rhyme or reason.
Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis also shine as Nitram’s father and mother respectively, while the reliably excellent Essie Davis does pivotal work as the lonely middle-aged woman with whom the protagonist forms an unconventional bond. It’s not quite a romance and not quite a parental thing, but an intimacy which occupies a strange space between those two worlds. When Nitram feels comfortable around someone, he appears to regress to being a carefree child desperate for attention, and Jones conveys that perfectly with subtle changes in facial expression and physicality.
Nitram also serves as Kurzel and Grant’s critique of the lax gun laws which allowed dozens of people to be killed on that day. One of the movie’s most overtly didactic scenes features Nitram buying semi-automatic weapons from a firearms vendor whose chirpy refrain of “no drama” allows the character to jump through licensing hoops as he assembles the cache of guns which would allow him to take so many lives. It’s as mouth-agape comedic as it is tragic. Kurzel also makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, the new laws brought in after the shooting did not turn the country into a gun-free paradise. Nitram isn’t merely a lurid true crime tale; it has an important point to make.
Smartly, the film focuses considerably more on the build-up to Port Arthur than the terrible events of the day. Unlike the similarly-themed recent thriller My Friend Dahmer, though, it delves into the psychology of a killer, rather than simply walking through the standard cliché collection of tropes about harming animals and separating from peers. Nitram has always been separate – a forgotten and discarded land mine just waiting to explode when someone takes a misplaced step.
When the time comes for Kurzel to depict the events of the day that defined the life of his protagonist, his camera looks away. Nitram isn’t a film that’s interested in muzzle flashes and corpses – the macabre details beloved of so much true crime material – because its focus lies elsewhere. It’s a psychological study of one man – depicted with earnest commitment and precision by Jones – and also the nightmarish failings of the nation that built him. Nobody does controlled bleakness better than Justin Kurzel, and Nitram is an intelligent, intricate take on an unexplainable and inescapable horror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.