Director Justin Kurzel has always had a fascination with the darker side of Australia. His cinematic exploration began with his debut feature Snowtown. He then went from a biopic of one of Australia’s most famous criminals with The True History of the Kelly Gang to one of its most infamous crimes with Nitram.
The film follows Martin “Nitram” Bryant in the months leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania.
The film’s existence has proven a controversial talking point in Australia with the worry that it is too soon to reopen the wound or it could potentially glamourize the killings or attempt to show Bryant in a sympathetic light by providing context for his mental state.
Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant walk the delicate tightrope of presenting his life and character in as neutral a frame as possible. The key was not to judge (that has already been done by the courts and the public), it was to understand.
One of the keys to the films’ success is the performance of Caleb Landry Jones who won Best Actor and the Cannes Film Festival. There are moments of explosive rage, sadness and confusion. Yet for the majority of the film, there is a chilling blankness to his expression. One that is impenetrable to his family and the audience.
People will always look to try and understand why this man did what he did. What drove him to do it. So every scene there are opportunities for conclusions to be drawn.
He has a history of mental illness and is on anti-psychotic medication. He was teased at school. He has a complicated relationship with his mother. The story she tells of a game of hide and seek gone wrong potentially sums up Bryant in a nutshell. Out of everything in his personal history, it presents the relationships with his father and eccentric friend Helen as potential trigger points. Anthony LaPaglia and Essie Davis are both fantastic and provide hugely emotional turns that anchor Nitram and their loss leaves him adrift.
Sometimes however there are simply no easy answers. In the very first scene that featured real footage of Bryant as a child in a hospital recovering from burns received when playing with firecrackers. When asked if he learned a lesson, he replies “Yes but I’m still playing with them”. Nothing could have potentially been done to prevent or stop this horrific tragedy. Sadly, it was an inevitability. Not a case of if but when.
So when the film enters that fateful day, Kurzel directs it with an unnerving level of calm that creates a palpable sense of dread and unease in the audience. Those familiar with the tragedy know exactly what is coming but the victims do not. A sickening feeling rising up from the pit of your stomach as the camera lingers on Bryant as he slowly eats the fruit cup he ordered, scanning the crowd and potentially picking his targets, before turning on his video camera, picking up his semi-automatic rifle and walks off-camera. The screen thankfully cuts to black.
Receiving its Scottish Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, viewers will find their minds drawn to memories of the Dunblane tragedy in 1995. The event itself is referenced in the film on a TV news report that Bryant watches.
In both cases, the devastating events saw fast and urgent gun reforms put in place by their governments. In many ways the most shocking and sickening scene is not the calm before the storm but the scene where Bryant purchases the guns he will use for his killing spree. When choosing a rifle, he admits to not having a gun licence. Any sane individual imagines that would be game over but the salesman is happy to sell him multiple semi-automatics, just “not a handgun”. The ease at which he is able to buy these weapons is horrifying.
Although it is a tough watch, you will be unable to look away from Nitram. A captivating and engrossing study of a spree killer.
Drama | Australia, 2021 | NC 15+ | 2022 Glasgow Film Festival | Picturehouse Entertainment | Dir. Justin Kurzel | Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia