Grimmfest Easter 2022: A Pure Place

Surface political allegory meets interpersonal tension in this textured story.

Synopsis: A tale of dirt, soap, and magic set in a cult on a remote Greek island.

Irina (Greta Bohacek) and her younger brother Paul (Claude Heinrich) are members of a cult led by Fust (Sam Louwyck). Fust leads with a mythology and ethos that intersects with daily life, aided by rumours of his own otherworldliness. The cult is divided into two distinct areas. The upper area is a wealthy, pristine space, funded by a lower area engaged in making soap, raising pigs and being deprived of light and cleanliness. When Irina is handpicked by Fust to move to the upper level, Paul is left to come to terms with life without her.

The locating of the central cult on a Greek island with strange, often offputting rituals designed to discuss societal and cultural issues will obviously call to mind the label of Greek Weird Wave. A Pure Place lacks some of that characteristic bluntness, instead devoting time to the grounding of the cult’s mythology and the interpersonal relations. A few standout moments of oddness stick in the memory, but A Pure Place has to balance those with the sibling relationship at its heart. This does mean that it is more possible to overlook the obvious central allegory which lacks any kind of subtlety and invest in their connection.

The casual cruelty of the upper levels and the obsession with the story pushed by Fust dominates. The performances suit the heightened world they inhabit and while this is not a place for much nuance, there is a delicateness to the portrayals that prevent them from becoming only caricatures of the concepts they are required to embody. Still, it is difficult to assess if the film has anything particularly new to say, or even if it has to. The clear disparities in wealth are secondary to the more insidious white supremacy thread that runs throughout it with an emphasis on supposed purity that operates only on the suppression and abuse of others.

The attention to detail on the way the cult operates and the depth with which their mythology is imbedded into every action and the surroundings. The production design is well-observed with the decadence coming to further the obviously sinister ideological implications of Fust’s teachings. The messaging, although surface-level for the most part, is troubling in that in our current times we still need a reminder of how damaging that kind of belief is. The seduction of the vulnerable into the cult under the belief of a better life is captured in simple, but no less effective terms.

The impressive visuals make this an absorbing watch, although some of the strangness may hold some viewers at arms-length. It is a shame that the storytelling and impact cannot keep pace with the way the film looks.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out 5 stars

A Pure Place played as part of Grimmfest Easter. For more information on Grimmfest please see their webpage.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: The Family

Competent but too familiar cult-based horror fails to leave much of an impression, despite some decent ideas.

Synopsis: A young family, living in isolation and forced into hard labor out of fear of dishonoring their Father and Mother, fight to free themselves from their religious cult.

The Family contains a line of dialogue in which a character reflects that what she remembered most of her indoctrination was ‘the mercy’. It is a line that perfectly encapsulates why troubled people may stay within the confines of a cult, even when the initial safety and comfort of the situation are long gone. The Family, as a film, understands and lays bare those dynamics. Unfortunately, this comes packaged as far too familiar, with too little to truly set it apart.

Caleb (Benjamin Charles Watson) belongs to a hyper-religious and strict community in which exhausting work in the fields is used as a method of control. After Elijah (Onyx Spark) falls ill due to his workload, Caleb starts to further question his own role within the group, along with the motivations of Father (Nigel Bennett) and Mother (Toni Ellwand). An arranged marriage to newcomer Mary (Keana Lyn) proves to be a further disruption for Caleb, prompting him to further question his situation.

The film’s period setting presents some challenges, mainly in terms of dialogue. This is furthered by the film’s frequent dips into high melodrama. The sober language and the sudden escalations are a slippery contrast that makes the performer’s roles that much more difficult to fulfil. This, along with a narrative that reveals itself far too early into the run time, hampers the film’s ability to sustain itself.

However, there are technical elements that become enjoyable in their own right. On one level, this is mildly frustrating as you can see the real potential of this film to be something more if it wasn’t attached to and embedded within the wider narrative. An excellent string score provides panic to high-energy scenes, some sections invoking the memory of The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Mary’s singing, seeping through walls turns her into a siren figure, effective in furthering her impact on the group. The relationship between Mother and Father, too, offers a departure, not offering pure patriarchal rule governed by Father, but an exploration of slightly more complex dynamics.

While The Family does make efforts to craft an engaging narrative, weaving effective technical elements into the film, it can’t overcome that its themes and execution have often been overused and this similarity impacts it.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Family played as part of Grimmfest Easter. For more information on Grimmfest please see their webpage.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Post Mortem

A tendency to draw out the narrative for too long, coupled with some questionable effects undermine an otherwise very effective ghost story.

Synopsis: A post mortem photographer and a little girl confront ghosts in a haunted village after the First World War.

Starting by throwing the viewer immediately into the chaos and destruction of war, Post Mortem is a film consumed by its impact and the long-lasting hold it has on those involved, either directly or indirectly. After he suffers an injury during the war Tomás (Viktor Klem) is involved in post mortem photography. Sent to a village inundated by the war dead and flu victims, there is no shortage of work, but the spirits are not to be confined to their photographs, with the growing threat surrounding him.

Post Mortem has something of an identity crisis. On one level, it operates as a sober, even sombre exploration of communal grief, but on another, it wants to indulge in short, sharp bursts of more conventional jump-scare horror. This results in a film with a very solid creep factor that is sometimes undermined by an inability of the effects to match the overriding tone. Jerky movements in the background initially offer the kind of pleasing jolt that will stay with you, but overuse and making them too prominent shows the cracks in occasionally sub-par CGI.

Viktor Klem’s performance underpins everything, always striking the right tone for the scene. Tomás’ own brush with death gives him a sensitivity to the loss in the village and a unique relationship with Anna (Fruzsina Hais), a young girl who has also had a near-death experience. Their interactions offer sensitivity and personal touch to the wider, more anonymous nature of the village.

With the pair offering an anchor for the supernatural elements, it allows the supernatural elements to run wild. Levitations and increasingly chaotic scenes in the village are initially refreshing inclusions, offering something different. However, these are inclined to outstay their welcome, with intense movement and wailing suddenly disrupting the film’s focus. This inability to know when to end a scene hampers the film, right up until the conclusion. Each fade to black operates as a reminder that the film could end there, only to add an extra scene to diminishing returns.

The film is at its best when it balances the disquieting stillness of the bodies in the photographs against the tense threat of sudden movement. Drawing out that tension for as long as possible is where the film exercises a real understanding of our discomfort with the deceased and the ways death was commemorated in the past. The difficulty of processing such immense loss permeates the film and even if you find yourself worn out by the reliance on loud noises at certain parts of the film, that very human need to grieve sits at the heart of it.

Flawed in execution but effective in terms of scares, Post Mortem is definitely worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Post Mortem plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 10.15pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Woodland Grey

Atmosphere and indulgent imagery makes this an interesting, if not altogether successful woodlands horror.

Synopsis: When a man living alone in the woods saves the life of a young woman, they are forced to coexist. Chaos ensues when the woman makes a terrifying discovery in the woods behind the man’s home and unleashes something truly haunting.

We initially meet William (Ryan Blakely) in the woods, far from other people and carrying out what amounts to his day-to-day life. That quiet is soon disrupted by the arrival of Emily (Jenny Raven), a woman he finds injured in the area. Their initial interactions are tense, with William having adjusted to not speaking to other people and Emily keen to probe the situation. That probing leads to further issues between them when she discovers that William may have a dark secret.

The real strength of Woodland Grey is in director Adam Reider’s handling of the swirling confusion that punctuates much of the film’s action. This is a film that is not in a rush and certainly has even less urgency to provide answers to the many questions it offers. Instead, there is confidence in the repeated phrases, images and other motifs, including an ominous whisper that holds it all in place. While not all of these images come to something entirely satisfying, the opportunity it affords to extend that well-realised imagery is welcome. From an initially slow pace, it picks up and starts to pick at the state of mind of the characters, creatively weaving these increasingly unsettling images into the narrative.

William and Emily are forced into a situation where they alternate between trust and intense mistrust. Both Blakely and Raven manage their roles well, especially when they are called upon to produce a lot of tension within a short space of time. With the other elements all competing for attention, the performances still have to provide a base for the other, more abstract elements to be successful. Each new piece of information forces you to look at previous actions differently, leading you into a cyclical viewing experience. Their initial interactions seem slightly stilted, but this soon plays into both the characters and also the wider sense of the film being rather more surreal and unnatural, despite the very natural location. That sense of being unable to hide is at the film’s heart, forcing confrontation to the fore.

The film is beautiful, leaning into the enclosed setting of the wooded area, isolating the characters from the outside world and really adding a lot to the nightmarish feel. The trees looming over and the separation from the ‘normal’ world allows for the characters to become unmoored rather more quickly as all the competing tensions soon add up. For those looking for a straightforward experience, this is likely to frustrate and even with my enjoyment of it, the film doesn’t quite satisfy, lacking a little power in some sections.

This is also a very difficult film to review, as the central discovery is best kept a mystery until watching the film itself. Emily’s reaction to her discovery is one of panic and disgust, but her situation forces her to engage further. Blakely’s performance, veering from forcefulness to terror does much to wrongfoot the viewer at every turn.

Woodland Grey is an ambitious horror that uses everything at its disposal to create a mood-heavy film that indulges in both emotional and physical horror.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Woodland Grey plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 8.20pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Cross The Line

An energetic and tense thriller with a real-time feel that keeps you absorbed.

Synopsis: Dani has dedicated the last few years of his life to taking care of his sick father. After his father passes away, he decides it’s time to get his own life back on track and buys a round-the-world ticket. But before his journey can get underway, he meets Mila, a young girl who is as attractive and sensual as she is disturbed and unstable. What starts out as a night of adventure quickly turns into a living nightmare, taking Dani to extremes he could never have imagined…

Cross The Line (also released as No Matarás) is a film focused on how quickly things can undergo near-seismic changes. From the first moments, we see Dani (Mario Casas) leave his ailing father’s bedside to buy cigarettes. The camera sticks right by him, taking that journey as he remains absorbed in the music in his earphones. By the time his short errand is complete, he returns to the room and finds his father has passed away. The event functions as both the start of a grieving process and an end to the long-standing responsibility. As part of the freedom from that responsibility he books a trip, but the journey he is about to take is far more eventful than any travel.

When Dani first encounters Mila (Milena Smit) she asks him to pay for two burgers, having been stood up and now under pressure to pay the bill. He obliges, thinking the encounter is strange, but certainly a one-off and writes it off as a good deed. Mila, however, has other ideas and is waiting outside to apologise and offer repayment. Their meeting kickstarts a series of events that escalate over the course of the film.

Casas’ performance is the glue that holds this energetic but occasionally thin thriller together. Any time the narrative flags a little, the camera closing in on his expressions is capable of snapping you back into it. It is a powerful advantage that the film sensibly exploits throughout the runtime. Sometimes, there really is nothing better than allowing a performer to demand the full attention of the audience and offer complex emotions, filling the space. Melina Smit as Mila also offers a captivating presence and their early chemistry also keeps you invested as the pair interact and she seems to guide Dani into his new life, free of duty and care.

As in the first scene, music plays a key role throughout the film, sometimes even becoming too intrusive and turning scenes into snippets from music videos to some extent. As the very dark farce continues, this dissipates somewhat, allowing the energy to increase and settle into the physicality as much as the early soul-searching and flirtations. The film knows exactly when to pause for breath, confronting the viewer as to what options Dani has available at each turn before sending him into another tense sequence. These pauses become all the more important as Dani’s choices become less palatable and more extreme.

On a technical and performance level, this is solid, but there are times where the events of the film feel a little thin. The focus on one key event that other issues spring from keeps everything cohesive, but also limits it to some degree. From my perspective, the inciting event doesn’t quite gel convincingly so the following chaos fell a little flat as it seems such a departure from the way the character is initially set out. The film has to rely on this life-changing incident for the rest of the film’s stakes but doesn’t quite earn it. This is offset somewhat by the pace of the film, escalating in terms of action and threat in what feels close to real-time. It allows you to see the toll everything takes on Dani and captures that sense of transformation.

A thriller that has a compelling lead and a good grasp of action, even if it is lacking in some depth.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Cross The Line plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 6.10pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: The Cellar

A strong, spooky idea that can’t quite make the leap to feature-length.

Synopsis: Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.

Writer-director Brendan Muldowney returns to the idea behind his excellent short film The Ten Steps to expand the story, to limited success. Viewers of the original (and brilliantly executed) short will be familiar with the concept – some busy parents head out to a work dinner, leaving their children at home. When the lights go out their teenage daughter has to go into the cellar to fix the issue, guided over the phone to walk the ten steps. The short packs a powerfully creepy punch, so a continuation of that idea may make sense, although the feature-length production highlights that the short’s power lies in both its brevity and lack of explanation.

Focused around the Woods family, The Cellar‘s opening moments play out in much the same way as the short, with sullen teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) at odds with her parents, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) as well as younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) as they move into their new, suspiciously cheap house. On the first night of the move, Brian and Keira are at a meeting, leaving Ellie to look after Steven. Creepy goings-on in the house ensue and soon Ellie is having to make the scary trip into the cellar, resulting in a disappearance that Keira has to take exceptional measures to resolve.

While Muldowney very clearly has a great sense of what makes something scary and a good grasp on how to bring that to the screen this cannot overcome the fact that this is an 80 minute film built around an idea that makes for a very strong short film punchline. Outside of that punchline, the film is forced into recreating the usual ‘haunted house’ tropes. Internet symbolism research and expositional historians make appearances almost like clockwork. The addition of a mathematically-focused expert does add something not seen as often, but the delivery is just as undynamic and stalls momentum. The Woods parents’ social media company meeting is full of vague references to previous campaigns and ‘going viral’ but fails to establish sufficiently high stakes for them leaving the children alone in a new, unknown house.

The use of light and shadow is very impressive, providing some standout moments of tension and horror. Even as the film often lurches into scenes you have seen previously, they are, undoubtedly well-realised. However, as the film needs to expand further toward its conclusion there is some straining at the seams as the images can’t quite live up to the film’s ambitions, resulting in the mood and atmosphere from all those well-earned scares sadly escaping at the conclusion. This leads to the film ending on a whimper, rather than the bang of the original short.

Elisha Cuthbert’s performance provides the main focus here, solidly selling the concept of a worried, yet determined mother trying to come to terms with her loss and the desire to keep searching into an entirely unknown world. The film affords a few starring segments for Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady’s Steven, under threat from the house perhaps more than anyone. Eoin Macken is just as solid, although he appears more sparingly, allowing Cuthbert to take centre stage as the driving force. This does lead to the family feeling rather more fractured as the film moves on, fitting, given the strain placed upon them.

Some pleasing horror moments and the undeniable shudder that the film’s borrowed set piece brings can’t quite elevate this to the heights of the short it is based on.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Cellar plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 4pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets. The Cellar will also begin streaming on Shudder from April 15th.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Murina

A coming-of-age story contained within a sun-bleached thriller.

Synopsis: A teenage girl decides to replace her controlling father with his wealthy foreign friend during a weekend trip to the Adriatic Sea.

Named for the eels that Julija (Gracija Filipovic) and her father Ante (Leon Lucev) hunt together to sell as delicacies, Murina is a directorial debut that is as tightly controlled as the protagonist at the outset of the film. Julija is central for much of the runtime and both the way she is looked at and the way she observes the looks between others is a dominant narrative force. The swimsuit she wears for much of the film has a practical purpose, but also displays her to the men around her father, creating discomfort and furthering his desire to hide her away. This enhanced control coincides with a visit from Javier (Cliff Curtis), her father’s wealthy friend and prompts Julija to consider a life with him, given his clear fondness for her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic).

Gracija Filipovic carries much of the film on her shoulders, navigating a character who is naive but also given to fantasies about improving her life, even if that is achieved through sinister means. Her anger for her father comes in the outright anger and darkly rendered underwater fantasies that hint at an altogether more dangerous outlook. Meanwhile, she saves verbal barbs for her mother, angry at the control Ante has over the way they dress and live their lives. There is also a reckoning with becoming a woman, recognising that her mother is the object of Javier’s affection that could be used as leverage, a realisation that prompts her to say, “If I had your power, I would use it”. The relationship between the pair is subject to negotiation as Julija refuses to follow her lead.

First-time feature director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic uses the beautiful location to her advantage, injecting proceedings with an almost magical touch that fuses Julija with her surroundings. When she is in the water, she is at her most free and confident, allowing the film to weave in a fable related to coming-of-age in a way that feels both satisfactory in narrative terms as well as providing memorable visuals. The shift from a sticky, tense atmosphere when Ante is around to the rather more tranquil sensuality when Javier takes centre stage is deftly handled.

Underwater scenes become a space for uncovering desires and removal from reality which the film indulges in long sequences. The film creates the idea that Julija is at her most uncomfortable on land and it is in these sequences, especially a notably tense party scene that she appears as a fish out of water, not content to follow her parent’s lifestyles or adhere to the occasion. Filipovic is excellent, never less than captivating as she inhabits Julija’s questioning and refusal to stay quiet.

Some may find the film’s pace too slow and too content to allow its characters to bake in the surroundings. Sequences that turn up the tempo considerably are few and far between, but even so, there is a palpable tension throughout that maintains that interest. The pace of the film reflects the pace of Julija’s life, prone to periods of stillness set against short outbursts of frustration.

An excellent central performance and composed, unhurried handling make Murina a film to get lost in.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Murina screened as the Closing Gala of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Murina is released in cinemas nationwide on 8 April, with Q&A screenings with the director this weekend, details at  https://www.modernfilms.com/murina

FrightFest Glasgow 2022: Mandrake

A fevered folk-horror with plenty of attention on ritual and lore.

Synopsis: A probation officer, Cathy Madden, is tasked with rehabilitating a notorious killer named ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw back into society following a two-decade sentence.

One of the ways in which Irish horror stands out, for me, is in its mix of current social issues and fully realised folkloric elements. Mandrake, like You Are Not My Mother is a film constantly straddling the line between everyday life and the otherworldly. When Cathy (Deirdre Mullins) is tasked with the case of ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty) it seems a far cry from her usual work. The violence of Mary’s crime and the rumours surrounding it all contribute to a vast sense of unease that permeates every part of the film. Both Mullins and Crotty inhabit their roles with a believability that sustains even the film’s most unmoored elements.

Mandrake excels by virtue of commitment to the ritual elements and boldness in the intersection between the banal and the fantastic. The effects and droning soundtrack contribute to the atmosphere, allowing the film to tip back and forth between concrete reality and something more ancient and magical. Cathy’s work as a probation officer places her on the frontline of modern Ireland’s issues, striking up relationships and connections with those who feel removed from society due to their criminality and circumstances. These connections stand apart from her troubled failed relationship with police officer Jason (Paul Kennedy). That they are responsible for vastly different stages of the process, with hers a focus on rehabilitation, a key difference that seems part of the reason for their issues. Working together to care for their young son still connects them, as does living in the same area.

Cathy appears uniquely placed to deal with Mary Laidlaw, having accepted the job without seemingly placing too much emphasis on the gory (and impossible) details of her original crime. Considering the retelling of the circumstances to be little more than rumour, the film treats the discovery of burns on Mary’s legs as an important confirmation of both what she has been through and what she may be. The impact of swirling rumour and mob mentality trickles throughout, with Cathy forced to negotiate her belief and understanding at every turn. Her openness, as compared to the superstition of the worker originally assigned to Mary’s case buries her in layers of risk, placing her in the league of other well-meaning but out of depth folk horror protagonists. I

Mandrake is unafraid to indulge in horror imagery, bringing fevered ritual and symbolism to the forefront as the narrative progresses. Director Lynn Davison carefully turns up the temperature and allows things to escalate into outright weirdness, leaning on mythology for stability. The film’s initial coldness, brought from the damp mud of its intriguing opening turns to a sweaty, panicked and all-round heightened affair. That dedication to providing that horror spectacle is much appreciated when other films seem uncertain of allowing those uncanny elements to take centre stage.

Mandrake uses its rural location, paranoid environment and lashings of folk horror to bring its story and characters to life.

4 out of 5 stars

Mandrake screened courtesy of Blue Finch Film Releasing as part of FrightFest Glasgow 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Silent Land

An unsubtle but confident satirical thriller on privileged disconnection.

Synopsis: A perfect couple rents a holiday home on a sunny Italian island. The reality does not live up to their expectations when they find out that the pool in the house is broken. Ignorant of the fact that the island faces water shortage, they ask for someone to fix it. The constant presence of a stranger invades the couple’s idea of safety and starts a chain of events, which makes them act instinctively and irrationally, heading to the darkest place in their relationship.

Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) are looking to enjoy a holiday together, remaining mostly secluded in an expensive villa home. Their ideas of remaining isolated are scuppered, however, when they demand to have their pool fixed. During the maintenance, an accident occurs that throws their holiday and relationship into flux in a deliberately told study of privileged apathy.

Agnieszka Woszczynska’s debut feature may be one of the most confident and tightly controlled debuts for some time. Long, static shots focus on the beauty of pastel-coloured surroundings while building an oppressive atmosphere. The camera moves slowly from these static bases, often panning to find characters in new moments of stillness. These moments come to reflect the film’s wider messaging about inaction with long pauses allowing the film’s decisions to rest heavily on those within and outside the frame.

Dymecki and Zulewska handle the material well, especially given how disconnected they have to be for much of the run time. The couple, although close, feel distant throughout, with even their intimacy and passion for one another becoming presented as detached and shrouded in darkness. Their increasingly terse interactions and particularly the unfurling of Adam’s confidence requires a lot from them, that they deliver convincingly, even when the situation leans into the more surreal side of satire. Language barriers create further tension as they are drawn into a process that neither entirely understand.

The political commentary on display is far from subtle and at times, this is to its detriment. The class divide is on stark display, as is the concept of entitlement. A recurring dog that encounters both the pool repair man and the couple at various points is the film’s most successful visual motif, reflecting the differences between them and the evolution of characters. The couple refer to the event that has thrown their holiday into chaos as an ‘uncomfortable situation’, seeking to play down its importance and impact.

Woszczynkska’s technical choices support the film’s power. With so many scenes involving the central pair remaining static, the brief sections where the pair attend a restaurant or town offer an element of vibrant respite from the coldness elsewhere. The warm colours and movement in a scene from the village highlight the difference between their increasingly closed off experience, punctuated by evolving paranoisa and self-questioning. Moments of jovial conversation are overlapped by the hum of a car engine, denying that connection. While all this builds tension and provides food for thought, the final scene offers perhaps the film’s most effective scene, arresting in its simplicity.

Agnieszka Woszczynska displays a tight control over her characters, bringing a sprawling, beautiful location into something sinister. The unrushed pace of this may not be for everyone, but its thematic power emanates from every scene.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Silent Land screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Nitram

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.