Caleb Landry Jones in Nitram (2022)
The 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania is one of the worst atrocities that occurred in Australia. The lives of several people were tragically stolen. Media coverage of shootings tend to focus heavily not on the victims but the shooter’s identity. Movies about this subject tend to reenact events of the shooting from a day-of perspective. But expectations are challenged in director Justin Kurzel’s film Nitram, which is based on the Port Arthur massacre. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant approach the subject matter with delicacy. The real shooter’s name is not specifically referenced. Shootings are filmed from afar, never sensationalizing nor showing the aftermath. The film opens with a list of support lines for anyone in distress. While any depiction of a day such as the Port Arthur massacre will understandably be met with scrutiny, the filmmakers behind Nitram bring authenticity and sensitivity in an attempt to understand the unfathomable. As the film follows in the footsteps of the shooter “Nitram” (played by Caleb Landry Jones), the story questions what leads someone to commit such evil acts, and how the inaction by others can build to devastation. Nitram is a disturbing, uncomfortable character study of a family shattering to pieces like a crash in slow-motion.
Nitram has a slow-building sense of dread, the early makings of a cloud about to cloak a quiet suburban town in mid-90s Australia. “Nitram" lives with his parents, struggles to fit in, and is often found playing with fireworks. Despite suffering serious burns as a child, he never learned his lesson about getting too close to the flames. The film opens with archival footage of “Nitram” as a child, recounting the experience. This scene is one of many examples of Kurzel using warning signs in the storytelling to indicate something is amiss. The signs are alarming, but the way they are revealed speaks to the inaction of those around “Nitram”. For instance, during a scene when he assaults his father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) for not getting off the sofa, his mother (played by Judy Davis) watches silently from afar. The weight carried by “Nitram’s” family is felt deeply. His mother in particular has an emotional detachment, knowing who her son is and not having the resources to help beyond keeping a watchful eye on him. Because of what she knows, she sees no future for “Nitram” that is different from the cocoon she has seemed to keep him under. Where her character seems more resigned to her son’s behaviour, “Nitram’s” father expresses the frustration of being accustomed to not understanding him. Even though centered on “Nitram,” who is looking for a way out, the film is every bit about parenting and mental illness as it is about the heinous acts he commits.
There is a candor about Kurzel’s direction that teeters on the verge of documentarian. Instead of reenacting the events of the massacre, the story takes a completely different approach that grounds it into humanity. Not by means of justification for “Nitram’s” crimes, but to inject the very unsettling reminder that for some people in the world, this is a reality. Whether it be the shooter’s family, the victims and their families, the bystanders, those who saw troubling signs and chose to look the other way. The film intently questions what leads someone to commit atrocities, and explores a nightmarish culmination of anger that immerses the story in overwhelming dread. As a viewer, it feels like being dropped in the middle of this unassuming community in Tasmania and experiencing first-hand the genesis of evil. As a testament to authenticity, the casting of Nitram is in large part what gives the film its immersive quality. Caleb Landry Jones is exceptional as “Nitram”; his performance feels so settled into the character’s mindset, not a single trace can be found of watching an actor “act”. This is nuanced, unflinching work; no doubt a haunting portrayal that will be impossible to shake.
While certainly clear that Jones is the acting standout, the talented supporting cast help keep the film rooted in realism, as opposed to sensationalism. Playing “Nitram’s” parents, Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis carry different weights of knowing their son fully. What they know simply cannot be accessed by anyone else, no matter how willing they seem to understand. When “Nitram” randomly knocks onto a neighbor’s door offering to mow her lawn, she extends pity when the lawnmower fails to start and offers that he walk her many dogs instead. The viewer eventually gets to know this neighbor as Helen (played by Essie Davis), an aloof heiress who listens to old-time instrumental music and dreams of going to Hollywood. She takes “Nitram” under her wing: buys him a car out of the blue, lets him live in her mansion, sees a potential in him. It is never made clear whether she views him in the figure of a son or a partner, but either case is a cause of concern for “Nitram’s” mother. When the two women are introduced at “Nitram’s” birthday lunch, the tension is palpable. The scene is a turning point in the film; an astonishing monologue by Davis gives insight into her character’s experience as a parent. She tells a story of “Nitram” as a boy, hiding in a fabric store and ultimately sneaking away from her. After frantic attempts to find him, she gives up and walks to her car, only to find him hiding there laughing at her pain, like it was the funniest thing in the world.
All hell is unleashed after the ‘fabric store’ monologue in Nitram. Not only does it give warning to Helen and remind the viewer how unpredictable “Nitram’s” behavior is, but it also speaks to Judy Davis’s talent. With just one scene, she speaks volumes about her character's distress as a parent. The monologue alludes to what must have been years and years of her trying to find ways of coping, ultimately resigning to the idea that her son cannot be changed. Davis brings remarkable detail and understanding to the character. As an actor, she holds her cards close to her chest, which makes her screen presence even more intriguing to watch. She and LaPaglia (also delivering some career-best work here) make the family feel like a real family. Their portrayals accomplish what Kurzel’s direction and Grant’s screenplay tap into: challenging the role parenting plays in the story. As well, the film sheds light on the stigmas around mental illness and how lack of treatment can manifest into dangerous paths. In Kurzel’s depiction of what leads up to the massacre, he sits with the root of evil and questions the enablers who let it rise. He doesn’t attempt to justify nor determine what exactly causes “Nitram” to commit violence. Instead, he sits with the family dynamics and observes. The humanity makes the film so unsettling; that a human being could be capable of such monstrous acts.
After the Port Arthur massacre, thousands of guns were bought back and destroyed by the government. The shootings changed gun laws in Australia forever, initially taking less than two weeks for reform. The swiftness calls into memory a scene from the film that happens just as swiftly, on a far more destructive level. “Nitram” is able to walk into a gun shop, without a license or any sort of background check, and purchase rifles. Kurzel avoids using this scene as a cause-and-effect moment. Instead it is yet another delicate observation made about the way numerous factors, whether social or personal, build over time. The character of “Nitram” is depicted with the same delicacy. Kurzel observes from afar a person who is ultimately unknowable, not just to his surroundings but to himself. There is understandable trepidation going into a film based on a tragedy that is still raw for many people. While Nitram is an uncomfortable watch, the cast and crew bring a level of sensitivity to the story that keeps it grounded.