2022, Unrated, 112 mins.
Caleb Landry Jones as Nitram / Judy Davis as Mother / Sean Keenan as Jamie / Essie Davis as Helen / Anthony LaPaglia as DadDirected 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
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.
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.
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.