DIRECTOR: Justin Kurzel

CAST: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Keenan

RUNNING TIME: 112 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A troubled young man (Jones) becomes more and more drawn toward committing an unspeakable act…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

The most disturbing thing about Nitram, the dramatized version of events that led up to the 1996 mass shooting in Australia, is its renewed sense of relevancy. Gun control is once again in the spotlight following the horrific massacre at a school in the Texas city of Uvalde, and even though new measures have now been brought in to curb some of the free-wheeling restrictions on firearms, the debate rages on as much more still needs to be done to properly prevent any more tragedies happening again. Moreover, it makes watching a film like Nitram a lot more sinister, as its heavy focus on the psychological anguish of the troubled young protagonist gives uncomfortable baggage to the current situation, but surely it’s the sign of a powerful movie that you’re even having such thoughts while watching it.

Nitram, directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant (this being their third feature collaboration), is of course based on the harrowing events that occurred in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996, as committed by Martin Bryant. In the film, “Nitram” (Caleb Landry Jones) is introduced as an anti-social loner with depression and severe intellectual difficulties, which cause him to display strong juvenile tendencies around others. Although he lives in reasonable comfort with his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), he soon strikes up a bond with Helen (Essie Davis), a wealthy and reclusive former singer and actress who occupies a neighbouring mansion, and a formidable mother-son relationship blossoms. However, when tragedy strikes (which Nitram may or may not be responsible for), it sends Nitram further and further down into depression, ultimately leading to him making a decision that will leave a horrific stain on Australia’s legacy forever.

It’s understandable why this movie has generated a good chunk of controversy, especially in Tasmania where the massacre took place; by effectively humanising a mass murderer, Nitram does seem an inappropriate concept that potentially dishonours the thirty-five victims who were killed. However, being the sensitive director that he is, Kurzel chooses to further study his character while also not shying away from his frightening behaviour (among his many “activities”, he lights fireworks around schoolchildren, and playfully grabs the steering wheel of a driving car). Both he and writer Grant, whose debut feature together Snowtown is closest in theme and spirit to this (making it a companion piece that is somehow even bleaker), carefully develop the circumstances around this dangerous young man, to a point where you can almost see why he would go on to do what he does, but also convey the ultimate tragedy of someone in dire need of psychological help being given all the wrong directions in life, whether it’s by his unsupportive parents or other bullying locals.

Caleb Landry Jones, whose portrayal of Nitram earned him a Best Actor trophy at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a key reason why the character feels so uncomfortably real. There are times in this movie when he is just haunting to look at, his juvenile five-yard stare sending chills down the spine, but the actor also brings a sense of pathos that underlines his character’s melodramatic journey; by no means is the character likeable in any way shape or form, but you do at least understand the way he thinks, especially as his behaviour becomes more and more erratic throughout the film. Some of the most chilling parts of Nitram are just when Jones is casually observing people and objects from a distance; the film’s most naturalistic – and therefore scariest – scene sees his character being shown how to use his future assault weapons in a gun shop, and the whole time Jones portrays it like he’s an overgrown kid in a sweet shop, to the enabling obliviousness of the store owners. It’s a mesmerising performance that Jones gives, one that unfolds layers upon layers of emotional distress while never distracting from the fact that this is, at the end of the day, a deeply disturbing character that’s constantly one Singin’ in the Rain sing-along from becoming Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange.

Hauntingly acted, unnervingly written, and rather beautifully directed, Nitram is uncomfortable in every stretch of the imagination, but also in a way where you’re endlessly hooked on the slow and steady storytelling, even if you go in knowing how it’s all eventually going to end. There will inevitably be some who can’t see beyond the attempt to humanise a mass murderer, and in some respects it’s easy to see why, but they will be denying themselves a dark and rich character study that may put a face to a national tragedy, yet still has the sensibility to explore rather than forgive his unforgivable actions.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Nitram is a bleak but mesmerising character study of the mass murderer that killed thirty-five people in 1996 Tasmania, but director Justin Kurzel, writer Shaun Grant, and especially lead actor Caleb Landry Jones find a great deal of underlying emotion to convey the tragic circumstances that led to an even more tragic massacre, without ignoring the disturbing nature of its central figure.

Nitram will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 1st July 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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