Justin Kurzel has never shied away from true stories of violence. His debut feature Snowtown was an uneasy viewing, depicting a series of callous murders across Australia in the nineties, and his last film, The True History of the Kelly Gang was a brilliant and stylish look at real-life bandits and our own examinations with how we treat brutal legends.
The director somehow feels like a perfect fit to bring to the big screen, if that is the right language to use here, the story of the Port Angus Massacre in 1996. Yet already the production has inspired unfavourable comments and outrage that, after the film has ended, you are still left with the burning question: Why?
As ever with a Kurzel film, there are no easy answers.
Nitram is not a particularly explicit and violent film, nor does it depict that damned day with blood and violence. Instead, the film looks at perpetrator Martin Bryant, who is named in the titular manner. It explores his behaviour and the boiling tension that is firing underneath his skin as he tries to fit into a society that wishes to forget him and a family who don’t understand him. When a chance encounter leads him to lonely heiress Helen, Nitram finds solace in her home. But when their relationship is strained, Nitram’s conduct changes sharply, leading to events that would reshape Australia forever.
So here we are: Why?
It is such a funny little question that demands explanation that may not be entirely there. First and foremost, why did this massacre happen? Nitram, the film and the character, does not give a response. However, it demands the audience engage with the personality and the life of Nitram, so that we can examine the man who would be painted a monster.
This is a quietly brooding film, an intricate character study. Nitram relies on Kurzel’s astute direction and his sensitive handling of the subject matter (there is no extreme violence portrayed.) Kurzel is, as most of us are, keen to understand what drives a person to murder. The film is an affecting case on how a lonely man, a born sociopath, is bred by society. Kurzel never fully assigns blame, which is smart, because it is clear that there is terror and trouble threaded deep in Nitram’s make-up.
So Nitram has to rely heavily on lead Caleb Landry-Jones. A gripping and breath-taking performance, Landry-Jones is unforgettable here. The actor allows Nitram to burn. There is someone there reaching out to someone, anyone, but is constantly pulled back into his sadness and anger. Whether it is himself who does the pulling by pushing the buttons of those around him to see how far he can go, or whether it is someone denying his friendship, Nitram struggles. Landry-Jones is brilliant at conveying the storm behind the calmer moments: a teardrop after being viciously told off or a withdrawal following grief alleviate the character and the actor from what could’ve been very one-dimensional.
Aiding to this palpable and brooding film is the ever-astonishing Judy Davis, as Nitram’s shrewd mother (who is never named in the movie.) Though fiction, Davis’ character feels very similar to Tilda Swinton’s in Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. Both mothers clearly look at their boys and recognise the psychopath/sociopath within. The way their sons laugh at pain or push the boundaries of their actions is chilling. With Nitram’s mother, she wears her exhaustion wryly, smoking cigarettes on the porch as a way of finding solace. She tries to reach out to her son but is iron fisted in his flights of fancy. From Judy Davis’ accomplished performance, his mother clearly wants to protect his son but protect the world from him also. It is only fitting that the film ends with her in silence, as the world becomes frenzied with Nitram’s murders.
Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, as Helen and Nitram’s father then play the sorry two who are at the whim of this somewhat more direct people around them. The actors are incredible and provoke a lot of heartache within this studious story.
As excellent as they are, Nitram is very much a power-struggle between the titular character, his mother, and the world, as that sticky little world rolls through the script and the dialogue. As aforementioned, there are no easy answers here. Damning text closes the story and years after the massacre has happened, and the hundreds of lives lost to gun violence in similar ways, we are still asking ourselves – why?