A film review by Craig J. Koban April 26, 2022

NITRAM jjj
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2022, Unrated, 112 mins.

Caleb Landry Jones as Nitram  /  Judy Davis as Mother  /  Sean Keenan as Jamie  /  Essie Davis as Helen  /  Anthony LaPaglia as Dad

Directed by Justin Kurzel  Written by Shaun Grant

NITRAM takes its name from the fact based tale of Martin Bryant (first named spelled backwards), a mentally sick and deeply disturbed young Australian man that committed the single worst mass shooting spree in that nation's history.  Over two days in late April of 1996 Bryant murdered over 35 people and injured another 23 more in what would be referred to as the Port Arthur Massacre, which not only was the worst shooting spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania, but also in the entire world.  Bryant was convicted of 35 life sentences equally 1652 years in prison without the possibility of parole.  As a result of this unprecedented and horrific tragedy, Australian state and territory governments placed new restrictions on all firearms to ensure that something so senseless would never happen again.  This legislation proved controversial, but public opinion was stirred in the wake of the shootings and the sheer loss of lives that resulted in it. 

NITRAM is all about the horrific and frequently difficult to endure build-up to this calamitous moment in Australia's history and one that changed the country forever.  Director Justin Kurzel (MACBETH, ASSASSINS CREED) faces a very difficult creative challenge with this deeply unsettling material: Too insensitive of an approach and he would be criticized for shamelessly sensationalizing a nightmarish ordeal for the purposes of manipulative and cheap drama, whereas a more soft pedaled and distant approach would lead to concerns that he's lacking insight into what happened.  NITRAM is as unsettling of a filmgoing experience as I've had in recent times; it asks viewers to come to grips and face to face with an incomparably grisly and grim moment in a nation's history that led to so many people dying at the hands a disturbed man with easy access to multiple firearms.  Fortunately, though, Kurzel wisely understands that he's not just simplistically making politically charged historical drama about the need for gun control.  His film is more thematically layered than that in the ways that it also explores mental health and the fundamental lack of mental health resources that might have helped the killer.  NITRAM isn't trying to garner outright sympathy for this mass murderer, mind you, but is rather trying to explore and maybe understand the multitude of factors that led this man down the dark path he took in life. 

It should be noted that NITRAM is obviously about Martin Bryant and the Port Arthur Massacre, but Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant never refer to their titular character by that name throughout the story here.  The film opens with a creepy piece of documentary footage in a children's burn ward in the late 70s that feature's what we assuming is a younger version of Nitram (as the interviewer asks him if he'll ever play with firecrackers again - after severely burning himself - he nonchalantly replies that he will do so without hesitation).  This sets up the fragile and dangerously flirtatious mindset of this character rather well, which serves as a foundation for him to immerse himself in even more destructive behavior (firecrackers leads to "playing" with other potentially dangerous items, with guns being the sad end result).  As we meet back up with Nitram (played in a career high and Oscar caliber performance by Caleb Landry Jones) he's essentially a child in an adult body: Intellectually disabled and suffering from a lack of proper social skills in most instances, Nitram has no friends or confidants of any kind.  The only people that care (and tolerate) him are his parents (the great Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis), but you can sense in their overall fatigued dispositions and deeply sullen eyes that they're slowly running out of fortitude and options with how to deal with their spiraling out of control son whose grip on sanity is slipping more by the day. 

 

 

Nitram's life changes with the appearance of a much older woman in his life named Helen (Essie Davis), a fairly rich ex-actress that develops an unlikely bond with him (in many respects, both are hopeless societal outcasts that serve as security nets for each other).  In a peculiar move, Helen even uses her fortune to buy her new platonic BFF a car, despite this kid having no driver's license and lacking in the focus and patience required to ever operate a car.  Nitram's parents get really concerned when he moves in with this strange woman, and maybe weirded out because their relationship hardly seems sexual at all.  This creates a new push-pull dynamic that adds more stress to Nitram's already tenuous family circle, and when tragedy strikes them Nitram begins to formulate a gameplan that horrifically leads to thirty-plus people being killed by his hands. 

This is not Kurzel's first trip down into the true crime genre, but NITRAM might be his most empowered work within it.  He doesn't just jump hastily into the tragedy in question, but rather spends an agonizingly long, slow burn amount of time with Nitram to create a portrait of this man that's excruciatingly sad and pathetic to witness in equal measure.  What's perhaps most striking about Kurzel's overall approach here is that his camera is like a fly on the wall in the way it casually observes this man and his complete disconnection from everything and everyone.  Nitram desperately tries to live a normal life, but simply doesn't have the socializing tools to do so and fails miserably at every waking moment.  Every encounter that he has - whether it be with a cute girl at the beach that he wants to simply talk to or his day-to-day interactions with his mother and father - becomes a cringe inducing exercise in fostering audience unease.  Nitram is capable of appalling behavior at the most inopportune moments and sometimes without reason or warning, which makes watching this film so disturbing.  You know that this unhealthy powder keg will go off at any time, and you feel for just about anyone that he comes in contact with in the film.  Even well before the massacre, Nitram is a quietly scary figure. 

Clearly, Nitram comes to deduce that committing violence is his only outlet to deal with his pain and inability to normally function in society, and the longer that the film progresses the more unendingly chilling it is to sit through.  But just how could someone like this do what he did?  And how was this allowed to happen?  And what ultimately tipped him off the deep end?  Kurzel thanklessly doesn't offer up any one-note answers to all of these multiple queries.  Was it his ridiculously easy ability to access guns?  Yes, partially.  NITRAM rightfully points its finger wag of shame on lackluster Aussie laws that permitted a mentally sick man to buy just about any gun he wanted and without much in the way of a checks and balance system (in most respects, the guns laws passed in the wake of the massacre seem completely justified for this nation, but curiously seem to be a never-ending lighting rod of controversy for other countries like the U.S. to follow suit).  Did a lack of proper parenting lead to this?  That's trickier, seeing as it would be easy to lambaste Nitram's parent's for their ineffectualness at dealing with their son, but considering how feebly broken down they are it's almost no wonder how they might have simply given up in their pursuit to tame their chaotic son (I don't think the film completely lets them off the hook, partially because they don't seem to be thoroughly loving and nurturing figures of influence in Nitram's upbringing, but to say they're directly responsible for the latter's actions would be unfair). 

And what of mental health aids?  Would that have stopped Nitram's rampage?  Again, that's a tough what-if proposition, but the film definitely places emphasis on the fundamental lack of accessible supports that he could have had to deal with his emotional and psychological problems.  It seems like there was a confluence of many factors that led to Nitram becoming a unpardonable psychopath, but Kurzel also concedes here that making sense of something so senseless is an impossible errand.  That's arguably why I became so intoxicated by NITRAM despite the sickening feeling I had while watching it: This is not an exercise in demonizing its subject, nor is it trying to get us to relate and understand motives here.  This film is a study in observation and seeing the journey of one deeply troubled and lost soul that became capable of perpetrating unspeakable mass cruelty.  NITRAM sparked a firestorm of controversy when it was released overseas, with locals and government officials condemning the making of it and opening up wounds that - nearly a quarter of a century old - are still healing.  I wholeheartedly understand this sentiment.   

Having said that, I didn't find NITRAM to be patently offensive in its treatment of this event and/or the man behind it.  Kurzel deserves kudos for finding a tactfully layered approach to this polarizing material that doesn't try to cheapen the Port Arthur Massacre (thankfully, the murders are never shown on screen, but the direct build up to them is here and it leads to a third act that's as frighteningly edgy as any final act of a film as of late).  That, and NITRAM needs to be seen for the bravura performance showcase from Jones, who has to inhabit an extremely difficult role that teeters from moments of emotionless quiet to instances of terrifyingly explosive outbursts the next.  It would have been easy for a lesser committed actor to make Nitram an empty vessel caricature of mentally challenged person.  Jones plays Nitram with a childlike naiveté, but also relays that this is a person without a basic moral compass.  What's so understatedly petrifying about his performance here - and the film built around him in general - is that it reflects an idea that real evil exists in the world and sometimes comes from the most normal of places, almost hiding in plain sight.  NITRAM so uncommonly effective and disquieting to the core because it reminds us that, on any given day, we've probably brushed by a person like this on any street corner while not fully comprehending the heart of darkness the resides within.  I can't say that I enjoyed watching NITRAM, and many will probably find it too gruesomely unwatchable, but I came out admiring its craft and complexity in dealing with an alarming past event that still has people talking...and shaken forever.

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