Justin Kurzel’s Nitram is a suggestion, not justification, of the days prior to the Port Arthur massacre, and a polarising but compelling watch.
Even for those not aware of the Port Arthur massacre – in which a gunman killed thirty five people and wounded another twenty three on April 28th 1996 – it isn’t hard to deduce what the outcome of Justin Kurzel’s Nitram might be. Essentially, the film is a fictionalised account of the events which proceeded Australia’s worst mass shooting, dramatising the possible motivations for an act of such abhorrent violence. There’s a tension and uneasiness palpable from the very start, but Nitram manages to maintain a respect for the realities upon which it’s based, and makes its point without getting bogged down in discussions of society’s role in events of this nature.
Nitram is actually the derogatory nickname given to our protagonist (Caleb Landry Jones), who otherwise is never referred to by anything else. ‘Martin’ backwards, it echoes the name of the real-life perpetrator and acts as a clever metaphor: the film is warping reality, ‘based on true events’ but its purpose is to tell a fictional story. Nitram is somewhat of a misfit, an oddball who struggles with social interaction and has clear developmental problems. His parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) love him, but are ill-equipped to deal with the various mental health issues he has.
When he meets Helen (Essie Davis), a wealthy older woman whose eccentricities include a fondness for loud opera music and a lot of dogs, the pair form a platonic bond that provides Nitram with a car, independence and a somewhat stable friendship. Helen interacts with Nitram in a careful manner that suggests an innate understanding of his troubles, even as she is wary of his mother’s warnings and his fondness for guns. But as tragedy befalls those around him, Nitram finds himself struggling with increased social isolation, awkwardness, and no outlet for the roiling mass of rage and confusion inside him.
Kurzel’s film does not set out to explain or justify the horrific events in Port Arthur, nor does it recreate the massacre itself. Instead, it relies on slow-build tension to develop a narrative that doesn’t overwhelm the audience with unsubtle subtext. Nitram is simultaneously a loose commentary on the societal factors in atrocities like this, on the reliance of heavy violence as a means of catharsis and as the instinctual conclusion for stories like Nitram’s, and also a compelling story of human failings.
Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant leave Nitram’s wealth of issues relatively unexplored, and instead focus on retelling a narrative that happens far too often: in order to lash out at a society they deem to have consistently failed them, an individual will resort to means of extreme violence. But Nitram doesn’t feel cliché or pantomime, nor does it suffer from feeling tone-deaf or wilfully ignorant of the complexities of mental illness and real-life tragedy. It feels like witnessing a turbulent psyche, pushed to the brink by prolonged mistreatment – both intentional and not –, making a terrifying decision without disrespecting the victims of such horrific crimes. It’s a film that invites comparison and discussion, but doesn’t claim to offer answers: instead, it’s telling its story and letting the audience make of it what they will.
Because Nitram, for the most part, is at a remove from the audience. His isolation and the clumsy nature of his interactions, his callousness and proclivity for fireworks and violence, form only half of the picture, as he is not afforded any particular moments of introspection. Anchored by an incendiary performance from Landry Jones, the film is structured in such a way that the perception of Nitram as a character is only formed from that of those around him.
Helen sees someone struggling, who needs a careful, helping hand, whereas his mum sees a source of concern, someone who found hilarity in her suffering, even as a young child. Nitram doesn’t express himself, avoids eye contact for the majority of the film and struggles to connect and follow the ‘right’ manner of behaviour. But as he slowly amasses a range of weapons, deep cleans his house and calmly eats breakfast whilst listening to a news reporter describe the perpetrator of the Dunblane mass shooting as “a misfit” and “an oddball”, it becomes horrifying clear what he’s going to do, even without the inclusion of his inner thoughts and feelings.
There’s a consistent buzzing of insects throughout the film, a low-grade, irritating noise that feels a little bit ‘off’. It’s an encapsulation of the tone Kurzel was aiming for, and has achieved, with Nitram. It’s a film that could have made a very pointed statement about the role societies and governments have in regards to events like Port Arthur, or justified the actions that resulted in thirty five people losing their lives, twenty-three suffering from physical injuries, and many more suffering from trauma. Instead, it’s a haunting exploration of the insidious nature of extreme violence and the events that lead to someone choosing to commit such a crime, that doesn’t examine its key players too closely.
Nitram is affecting, effective and respectful, offering a suggestion and not a justification for the incident upon which it’s based. It’s a film that functions as a piece of social commentary but also as a piece of filmmaking rooted in the complexities of human nature; a tough, important but understandably polarising watch.
Nitram had its UK Premiere at the 2022 Glasgow Film Festival on 5 March, 2022, and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.