This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Glasgow Film Festival 2022 coverage.
The controversy around even the idea of Nitram was swift, loud and completely understandable. A movie depicting the events leading up to the 1996 mass shooting at Port Arthur, Tasmania—where 35 people were murdered and 23 others wounded—would inherently be profiting from the atrocity. It would humanize a man who committed inhuman acts. It would dredge up the unimaginable pain of the Tasmanian community for the sake of offering “a cautionary tale about gun control,” as if there weren’t enough of those already.
Though the raft of objections caused trouble with funding and filming locations, director Justin Kurzel—who lives in Tasmania—persisted. Troubled at the amount of young people he was meeting who’d never heard of the shooting, and concerned at the direction in which gun ownership statistics in Australia were heading, Kurzel’s conviction regarding the project’s necessity prevailed. Now there’s a film to judge on its own merits.
In that film, the character is called Nitram (the first name of the actual perpetrator spelled backwards), and is played by Caleb Landry Jones. Nitram lives with his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), both fatigued from the effort of keeping a vigilant eye on their dangerously erratic grown son. Unable to maintain a conventional job, Nitram meets Helen (Essie Davis) when he’s prowling the neighborhood, offering to mow lawns in exchange for money. Unlike most of the people he encounters, Helen—an oddball herself, albeit a less threatening one—invites him in, and the two embark on an unusual romance. For a while, the two misfits achieve a fragile equilibrium.
Then tragedy strikes, and strikes again. From then on, Nitram marches unyieldingly towards the ending we know is coming.
Justin Kurzel’s Nitram does a lot of things very well—foremost amongst them, retaining a commendable level of neutrality. Concerns that the movie would pity the killer, that he’d become a misunderstood hero who wouldn’t have chosen to take such a terrible path if he hadn’t been bullied at school or was loved more by his parents, quickly prove unfounded. Nitram doesn’t go too far in the other direction either, not treating its disturbed protagonist as cartoonishly evil. You never get the sense that Kurzel is trying to tell us how to feel about Nitram. We’re asked to observe, not to judge. In a film centered on such a traumatic event, the maintaining of a perspective not overshadowed by intensity of emotion is a notable achievement.
That it’s possible is in large part thanks to Jones’ lead performance, which is as carefully calibrated as the rest of the movie. Over a host of prior roles in films like Get Out and Antiviral, Jones has established himself as a master of creepiness. The most frightening moments here—an unearthly series of screams from his hospital bed; a caress of his ailing father that becomes a brutal beating—are where he particularly excels, and yet he also shines in the softer moments, where Nitram just seems like an overgrown child. Between them, Kurzel and Landry Jones never ask us to feel sorry for Nitram, but neither do they insult our intelligence or humanity by painting him as a moustache-twirling villain.
Another potential pitfall sidestepped is in the portrayal of Nitram’s parents, whom the film treats with far more sympathy than blame. From the instant we meet them, the sheer exhaustion of constant caregiving for their terrifying son is writ large on their faces. Although Nitram’s mother is stern and his father permissive (Davis and LaPaglia are excellent as this wrung-out, mismatched parenting team), they both clearly love their damaged child. But where’s the instruction booklet in a situation like theirs? They’re doing their best for him, while struggling with the growing realization that their best is never going to be good enough.
Rather than at the feet of any one person, Nitram lays its blame on a system that could allow a clearly unhinged young man with a duffle bag containing half a million dollars to walk out of a gun shop with enough weaponry to stock a small army. The film doesn’t want for unsettling moments, but the pivotal gun shop sequence stands out for its queasy ordinariness; the laidback amiability of the salesmen is almost as discomfiting as the few scenes of overt violence.
Vitally, the shooting is kept offscreen. Kurzel trusts that the horror of the event speaks for itself; the ease with which it was allowed to happen is his overpowering concern. His most prominent editorialization comes in two title cards that close the movie, underlining how quickly Australia worked to enact gun laws that have prevented an atrocity on the scale of Port Arthur happening again, and noting how a slow erosion of those laws has meant that gun ownership in the country is now at a higher level than it was in 1996. Beyond its deeply unnerving character study, Nitram is a stark warning.
Some of the objections to Kurzel’s movie could never be satisfied; for many, its mere existence is offensive. However, Nitram does exist, and it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly have handled its harrowing subject matter with any more sensitivity or respect.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writer: Shaun Grant
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis
Release Date: March 5, 2022 (Glasgow Film Festival)
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.