Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriter: Shaun Grant
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis
James Baldwin once said: ‘artists are here to disturb the peace.’ If we can say anything of Justin Kurzel as a filmmaker, it is that he lives up to Baldwin’s definition of artistry. With his previous work (Snowtown Murders, True History of the Kelly Gang), Kurzel focused his lens on transgressive Australian figures, delivering violent, psychologically harrowing biographical narratives to demystify their legend. In choosing controversial figures as his subjects, Kurzel earned himself a reputation as a provocative artist on a mission to challenge audience expectation. With his latest project, Nitram, Kurzel crosses the line between challenging artistic stimulus and harmful provocation.
Nitram is Kurzel’s most nihilistic piece of work to date, documenting what horrors can breed in isolation. Based on actual events in the life of Martin Byrant, the film follows the disturbing behaviour of a young man teasingly named ‘Nitram’ (Nitram is Martin spelt backwards) during the lead up to his involvement in the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Australia. The ever-unsettling Caleb Landry Jones plays the titular character, heading the events with his usual disturbing air of intrigue. We aimlessly follow him through his day to day life: dinner with his Mum and Dad, strange attempts to start a lawn mowing business, setting off fireworks in front of a group of local schoolboys. His greasy hair and ill-kept appearance are instantly repugnant, but it’s the character’s offbeat mannerisms and erratic behaviours which sit most coldly in our minds.
Kurzel’s protagonist, who is only ever referred to as Nitram, a name he actively dislikes, is something of an enigma throughout the entire narrative. Kurzel heightens the suspense of his meandering script with his uneasy sense of mystery – we’re never quite sure what Nitram’s current state of mind is at any point during our time with him. During the introductory section of the film, while Nitram lives with his parents in his childhood home, he seems to be stuck in an eternal state of teenagedom: refusing to wash, annoying the neighbours by setting off fireworks in his backyard, arguing with his Mum. However, after he meets and makes a friend in an affluent recluse named Helen (Essie Davis), the more sinister parts of his personality begin to creep into the forefront. Yet, although we can see his journey come into focus, at no point within the film is Nitram remotely knowable or relatable; his extreme isolation extends outwardly, forcing us in the opposite direction, dreading the idea of becoming trapped in his solitude.
Despite her lucrative bank account, Helen seems just as out of touch with reality as Nitram; she lives alone in a state of squalor with around ten various breeds of dogs running untamed through her house and gardens. United through their shared isolation, Nitram and Helen form a strange, semi-sexual bond, and subsequently Helen invites Nitram to move into her home. The two play at house for a while, and, funded by an endless cash flow and unsupervised by rational minds, are free to do and buy whatever they like. It’s a happy picture until Nitram comes off his meds and begins to express a perverse interest in guns. Then, when an act of irresponsible cruelty forces Nitram into complete isolation, we see the last of his human connection slip away and his unforgivable agenda take hold.
In contrast to Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), which followed a fictional mass shooter, or Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009), which made efforts to distance itself from glorifying the perpetrator of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, Nitram is perversely manipulative of its audience. Although We Need To Talk About Kevin explored the idea of inherent evil and unconditional love, the film didn’t use real-life events to explore its theological questions. Contrastingly, Nitram uses actual tragedy in a morally confusing effort to point out the need for stricter gun control laws.
Throughout Nitram, Kurzel frequently reminds us that there is something wrong with Nitram in terms of his mental health. So when he comes off his medication midway through the narrative, we begin to worry about the trajectory of his unravelling mind. Chilling scenes in which Nitram makes his usual off-kilter jokes while effortlessly purchasing assault grade weapons (without a gun permit) do a great job in reinforcing Kurzel’s undertaking to challenge gun control. However, these scenes come into the film’s forefront much too late. Instead, Kurzel spends too much time delving into the psychological underbelly of a killer’s psyche, and as a result Nitram often morphs into a sympathetic character. By putting the onus of the movie on the killer’s declining mental illness, Nitram reprieves its protagonist of blame, which, considering the narrative from the standpoint of Byrant’s many victims, seems totally sadistic and unnecessary.
At its most potent, cinema can manipulate, challenge our collective ideology and ask us to consider new perspectives. Yet, in the case of Nitram, Kurzel’s direction feels like tactless goading with menial just cause to do so. On the one hand, by all merits, Nitram is an impressive piece of filmmaking: it’s beautifully shot with powerful visuals and standout performances from Caleb Landrey Jones, Essie Davis and Judy Davis. Plus, Kurzel achieves an odious sense of suspense and dread throughout his work, which would be a remarkable achievement in any other story. On the other hand, however, it feels selfish and opportunistic to bring such a figure into the forefront and attempt to rationalise his actions.
Nitram isn’t a violent film and arguably doesn’t make the unforgivable mistake of glorifying its subject: all of the unjust murders take place off-screen in the Shakespearean tradition. However, it does commit the sin of humanising a monster. Kurzel is a talented enough filmmaker to understand the significance of his compassionate approach to his protagonist, so it’s nauseating to consider he should take such a stance without using the subject matter to flesh out a clear-cut perspective on the irredeemable nature of mass shooters.
With its subject matter still so raw and painful, Nitram fails to bloom into an interesting or illuminating narrative about either mental illness or gun control. Instead, with such a distant lack of a standpoint, Nitram morphs into nothing more than a tedious gambit to elicit emotion from an audience who grew tired of these unscrupulous narratives years ago.