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Justin Kurzel first made noise 10 years ago with his gruesome debut The Snowtown Murders, which depicted the horrors of a notorious Australian serial killer of the 1990s in unsparing detail. That film was somewhat polarizing, causing many to wonder whether the impressive directorial craftsmanship and stylistic flair justified the unrelenting dive into the murkiest depths of depravity. The director returns with screenwriter Shaun Grant to the country’s true-crime hall of infamy in his fifth feature, Nitram, an account of events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, which keeps the physical violence offscreen but psychologically is perhaps even more punishing.
There’s no doubt a certain cautionary reasoning behind unflinching chronicles such as this, in terms of addressing mental health treatment issues, unheeded warning signals and lax gun laws. Those aspects will resonate especially in the U.S., where firearm-related violence with multiple victims now seems an almost weekly occurrence.
In Australia, the shooting spree carried out by Martin Bryant, in which 35 people were killed and 23 others wounded, prompted an instant overhaul of national gun control laws, pushed through Parliament in just 12 days. More than a million firearms were destroyed in federally funded gun buybacks and amnesty programs. Still, the end credits of Nitram reveal that no state is fully compliant with the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and there are now more guns owned in the country than there were before the Port Arthur shootings.
A strong argument can be made for raising awareness and anyone who thinks Kurzel is out to sensationalize the tragic events is misreading the film, which has an undeniable gut-punch effectiveness. Still, this uncomfortable probe into the head of the killer is likely to have audiences asking once again for whom the grim, anxiety-inducing psychodrama is intended — especially in Australia where many would prefer to forget the raw scar on the nation’s psyche. The fact that the tragedy happened in Tasmania, an island with a ghostly history of colonial-era violence (see Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale) that stands in contrast to its green, serene physical beauty, makes it all the more shocking.
Taking its title from the derisive schoolyard nickname that has stuck to Bryant into his troubled adulthood — Martin spelled backwards — Nitram casts Caleb Landry Jones in a vanity-free performance that never tries to soften the character’s creepily off-putting, aggressively obnoxious behavior or engender much sympathy.
However, in a rare moment toward the end when he sits down with his physically and emotionally exhausted mother (Judy Davis), he opens up about the way he sees himself and the envy with which he observes other people, wishing he could be more like them. That moment of piercing sadness and yearning alone distinguishes this from The Snowtown Murders, which was a depiction of pure manipulative evil.
The main character is never identified by any name other than Nitram in the film, just as his parents, played by Davis and Anthony LaPaglia in performances that are shattering in completely different ways, remain unnamed. The real Martin Bryant opens the film in archival news footage from 1979, when he was admitted to the Royal Hobart Hospital burns unit as a 12-year-old boy for injuries sustained while playing with fireworks. Asked by the reporter whether he’s learned his lesson, he responds that he has no intention of stopping. There’s no cheeky defiance in his tone, just the matter-of-fact directness of a kid disinclined to think about consequences.
Cut to the adult Nitram, with Jones stepping in — and nailing the Australian accent — as the pasty, paunchy slacker with a mop of stringy blond hair perpetually hanging in his eyes. He’s still playing with fireworks, now in his parents’ suburban front yard, while dogs bark and neighbors curse at him. His sour-faced mother rolls her eyes, shakes her head and sucks on a cigarette in exasperation. This seems her default response to her son, but Davis is superb at revealing the subtle ways in which that numb anger hides the pained love her character feels for this unmanageable, intellectually impaired eternal child. A moment when the family doctor (Conrad Brandt) asks about her own health and she shrugs off the strain speaks volumes.
While Nitram’s mother is the strict one, attempting mostly in vain to curb his worst behavior, LaPaglia makes his father the more indulgent parent, positioning himself as a friend who understands his son’s isolation. There are hints discreetly embedded early on of the depression from which LaPaglia’s character suffers, which surfaces with crippling weight after a setback. Nitram’s reaction indicates that he doesn’t know what to do with this, being ill-equipped for empathy, though his fondness for his father seems unquestionable, making him seek revenge against the people who hurt him. This is a portrait of a dysfunctional family unit with genuine pathos.
Nitram is on a disability pension but attempts to earn cash mowing lawns in the neighborhood. That’s how he meets Helen, played by Kurzel’s wife Essie Davis, so memorable in his last film, True History of the Kelly Gang, and equally brilliant here in a role that’s a complete 180.
A daydreamy heiress who lives with her menagerie of dogs and cats in a grand house reduced to Grey Gardens squalor, Helen has a theatrical past which informs her unconventional wardrobe choices and an enduring love for the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, resulting in some wonderfully odd use of music. Those speedy patter songs from The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance — either played on the stereo or sung by Helen and Nitram in giddy moments of euphoria — are deftly interwoven with the more unsettling tones of a score by the director’s brother, Jed Kurzel.
Helen offers the companionship of a fellow outsider. Her lavish generosity with gifts and a retreat away from his folks somewhat tempers Nitram’s thornier behavior for a while. During a tense lunch where she meets his parents — in a disquieting bit of foreshadowing, this takes place at Port Arthur, the former convict settlement developed as a tourist attraction — Helen calls him “a special man and a dear friend.” Nitram’s father makes every effort to be polite, but his brittle mother is confrontational about the unorthodox relationship.
DP Germain McMicking shoots these and other encounters with an uneasy intimacy, observing Nitram in ways that amplify the sense of a ticking time bomb in Jones’ rivetingly off-kilter performance. Unlike, say, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, about the deadly 2011 lone-wolf terrorist attacks in Norway, Kurzel’s film stays away from the victims and their families and predominantly adopts the perpetrator’s point of view.
Needling interactions like those with an affably cocky, good-looking surfer dude from Nitram’s high school days (Sean Keenan, capturing a very specific Australian type to a T) keep reminding him of his misfit status. The casual cruelty stops short of outright humiliation yet seems no less cutting for it. But it’s the crushing impact of back-to-back tragedies that ultimately unravels him. Kurzel and Grant have already shown Nitram idly honing his shooting skills in target practice with an air rifle. But when an unexpected cash windfall puts him in a position to buy serious weaponry, the sense of dread palpably escalates.
Even for a film in which the outcome is preordained, the buildup of suspense in Kurzel’s controlled direction is considerable. Grant’s screenplay economically condenses the movements of his real-life protagonist in the months leading up to the shootings. He illustrates just how far from the norms of a functioning person Nitram had strayed, with Helen’s largesse inadvertently encouraging his worst tendencies. The ease with which this clearly unstable young man can walk into a gun shop or respond to a private-sale ad and purchase semi-automatic weapons and ammunition — from sellers willing to overlook licensing requirements for the right price — is chilling. Even more so a shot of the extensive arsenal carefully assembled on a table in Helen’s living room.
Perhaps the most haunting scene is a final visit Nitram’s mother pays him at Helen’s house, in which she puts him to bed, much as she would have done when he was a child, then takes one long fearful look behind her up the stairs before leaving. Here and elsewhere, Judy Davis walks a devastating line between the hardened and heartbreaking aspects of a mother who perhaps could have been more vigilant but was worn down, incapacitated by a son who remained unreachable.
We hear rather than see the gunshots of the fateful day, and even then Kurzel stops at a separate incident prior to Nitram’s return to Port Arthur, in which he was motivated by personal grievance rather than indiscriminate rage. (There’s an inference of a copycat element conveyed in a news report of the Dunblane school shooting in Scotland that happened just six weeks before.) But as McMicking’s camera moves in from expansive drone shots of the scene and starts closely watching Nitram watching other people, the knot that the film has planted in the viewer’s stomach becomes almost unbearable. Nitram is an uncommonly tough, taxing film with an aftershock that’s hard to shake.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Keenan, Conrad Brandt
Production companies: Goodthing Productions, in association with Wild Bunch International, Stan Originals
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriter: Shaun Grant
Producers: Nick Batzias, Virginia Whitwell, Justin Kurzel, Shaun Grant
Executive producers: Nick Forward, Paul Wiegard, Anthony LaPaglia, Alice Babidge, Jenny Lalor
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production and costume designer: Alice Babidge
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Nick Fenton
Casting: Nikki Barrett, Alison Telford, Kate Leonard
Sales: Wild Bunch International
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