The Port Arthur Massacre of 1996 was horrific. Perpetrated by a violently disturbed young man who shot and killed 35 people at a Tasmanian tourist site, with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle, it, to this day, remains Australia’s worst massacre committed by a single person in the country’s history, as well as serving as the catalyst in overhauling Australia’s gun control laws.
To dramatize such an event has understandably fanned controversy, but, as strange as this may sound, director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) is incredibly respectful in his detailing. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant (Berlin Syndrome, Penguin Bloom) avoid sensationalism, instead aiming their attention on the committer’s existence leading up to the shooting, a life with a stranger-than-fiction quality that’s disturbingly fascinating; to clarify though, for anyone fearing of some type of humanisation, Kurzel and Grant don’t layer the film with any sense of empathy for its culprit.
That culprit is Martin Bryant.
Never addressed in the film by his name, the film’s title, Nitram, is a reference to the nickname he received at school, a term of bullying that accentuated his backwards mentality. Nitram (played brilliantly and chillingly by American actor Caleb Landry Jones, perfecting the Australian accent in the process) is a disturbed twentysomething who is clearly out of control. The aggression and violent-minded psyche he clearly honed since childhood – the film opens with footage of the real Bryant being interviewed on television as a young boy, hospitalised for mishandling firecrackers but defiant that it won’t deter him from further use – has not only shaped his unpredictable nature, but it has reduced his tried parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) to lesser versions of their own self. Dad, again the film never naming Nitram’s parents, tries to be something of the good cop to the more fierce Mother’s bad cop, both convinced that a loving relationship with their boy is something that will never come to fruition.
Whilst Nitram’s affection for his parents has been lost, a blossoming relationship with the sweet, reclusive Helen (Essie Davis, superb) suggests there’s a certain capability in him giving and receiving love. A wealthy loner who has an almost child-like quality to her, Helen’s relationship with Nitram flirts somewhere between loving him like a mother and a partner, something that rightfully, internally destroys Nitram’s own mother when they meet. Though there’s love between the two of them, many of Nitram and Helen’s scenes are laced with an unbearable tension, especially when she states at how uncomfortable she is with Nitram possessing an air-rifle, demanding that it be removed from her house.
The bizarre meeting of Helen is essentially what starts Nitram’s downfall. Though in his eyes it finally gives him a sense of purpose, the exuberant wealth to her name allows him to imagine a life without restriction, and when she dies in questionable circumstances – the framing of this scene genuinely taut – he is left with a fortune and now no supervision; the scene in which he purchases weapons is perhaps Nitram‘s most infuriating.
Given just how masterfully quiet and uncomfortable so much of Nitram is as a film, there’s a sense that the climactic moment of the massacre itself may be presented in a way that undoes so much of the film’s initial subtlety. Thankfully, Kurzel evades the very moment that defines Nitram, ending the film on a note that is ultimately far more unnerving than any visual violence could ever be. It’s a wise decision, not just in its bid to maintain respect, but to remain cohesive in the looming intensity that so much of Nitram‘s 112 minutes adheres to.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Nitram is screening in select Australian cinemas from September 30th, 2021. It will then be available to stream on Stan at a later date.