This striking true crime portrait, although understandably controversial, manages to find insight without sensationalism.
Synopsis: Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.
That the synopsis reads that this is an attempt to understand is notable. This is a film that, for the most part, has no real answers as to why it happened. The reality behind these cases is that unlike in narrative films, these atrocities lack one easily definable inciting event, but are an accumulation of multiple life events and individual psychology. Reflecting the often fractured nature of these extreme criminal acts, the film concerns itself less with why and more to how, resulting in some of the film’s most powerful moments.
Director Justin Kurzel is no stranger to tackling Australian true crime stories in unflinching detail. For Nitram he is reunited with Snowtown writer Sean Grant with the pair ready to probe the circumstances around another Australian tragedy. Nitram is controversial by the very existence of the film, given that the shooter the film is based on has very strict restrictions on the kind of media he is allowed to consume due to his own preoccupation with his actions. It is a relief, then, that the film avoids too much detail on the event, focusing instead on how it was able to unfold. The focus on domestic spaces as unsafe, pressured areas in which everyone falls into damaging patterns is retained from that early work, even if it does not depict the violence as explicitly.
The early sections of the film are challenging, owing to a reliance on getting into the same headspace as Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones on typically fine, terrifying form). His erratic behaviour is punctuated by moments of reckless impulse that undermine any attempts at human connection. That initial energy impacts the film negatively, as it tries to keep pace with his various outbursts. A perhaps unlikely friendship with older, eccentric loner Helen (Essie Davis) signals the point at which the film begins to slow from some of those excesses. Nitram’s mother (Judy Davis) delivers an incredible near-monologue about a challenging experience she experienced when her son was younger. It is a chilling story that sucks the air out of the room and exploits the tension between her role as a parent and acknowledging her son as a dangerous person. It is easy to see the echoes of films like We Need To Talk About Kevin in the lack of connection they share. His relationship with his father (Anthony LaPaglia) is similarly tumultuous, seemingly compounded by his own mental health struggles. There is a discomfort every time they meet as a group, the film constantly on the edge of outburst, yet always leaving something unsaid.
The less concerned the film is with echoing Nitram’s experience and personality, the more successful it is in exploring the situation. Caleb Landry Jones’ performance maintains the intensity and makes everything external, keeping nothing under wraps. By the film’s conclusion, the focus moves away from him, starting to look beyond him and into society. That he finds some comfort in Helen who is similarly detached from society feels, at times, like half-hearted finger pointing, rightly not positing that teasing has caused the issue. Indeed, from the very first scene in which children in hospital are quizzed about their burns and playing with fireworks. One child is remorseful, having learned about the dangers. The second, meanwhile is confident that they will do it again, positing that the central character’s pathology is as much a risk to himself as others and indicates something innate in Nitram that makes him predisposed to the behaviour.
The film is at its most convincing when it settles into something more sober, away from the outbursts and tension. The horror is heart-haltingly potent as the film reaches a state of calm. A late scene is punishingly effective, bringing the weight of the situation home without the need for anything graphic. Throughout the film, hazy shooting in high light to reflect the shine from the sea posits the area as idyllic and completely unprepared for violence and ill-equiped for those who don’t find comfort and stability in such a place.
A stirring portrait of a disaster in the making that depicts rather than disects, Nitram reflects the conceptually messy true crime genre while taking a step back from sensationalising, to great effect.
4 out of 5 stars
Nitram played as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.