Nitram (2021)

BEST AT FRENCH: Caleb Landy Jones at Cannes where he won Best Actor for Nitram

Director Justin Kurzel has a body of work which carries a dark theme and his latest, Nitram (2021), is probably his most impactful.

Nitram tells the back story of the lone gunman who killed 35 people at the Port Arthur tourist village in Tasmania in 1996.

Kurzel was one of a wide group of Australian directors who guided a part of The Turning (2013), Tim Winton’s opus into life in Australia’s coastal and more remote communities.

He also fronted Macbeth (2015), the Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard vehicle which told a very bleak version, set in even bleaker conditions, of the already-bleak on the page Shakespearean tale.

Before all this, Kurzel directed Snowtown (2011), the story of serial killer John Bunting and the grisly murders he executed in the South Australian town of the film’s title. 

So Nitram fits pretty snugly into Kurzel’s body of work. 

However, first a short political announcement.

In May 1996 the National Firearms Agreement was introduced to Australia. It banned the sale of certain automatic weapons and declared a 12-month amnesty from October that year for Australians owning such weapons. These were to be bought back by the government during this period.

The government stance was a completely understandable reaction to the Port Arthur outrage.

In two separate buy backs (the other was in 2003) nearly three-quarters of a million weapons became the property of the Australian government rather than owned by individuals.

Prime Minister John Howard, perhaps for the first time in our nation’s history, wore a bullet proof vest at a public meeting, such was the vehemence of critics in the community. It was world news.

(When New Zealand introduced similar law in 2019, the country’s prime minister Jacinta Ardern boasted it took her government 72 hours to do so, compared to Australia taking 12 days. NZ took the action after a lone gunman killed 51 people in two Christchurch locations on 15 March 2019. I would say it took them 23 years longer than Australia).

Nitram is a disturbing film about a disturbing subject and correctly does not give the Port Arthur gunman the dignity of a name. Indeed, Nitram is a nickname he abhors.

It follows his growing up as a loner, the torment of his parents and the relationship he forms with an older woman. The main character, beautifully played by American actor Caleb Landry Jones, is a difficult person to like and has no friends. Is that enough reason to kill 35 people in one go? 

As his parents, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia add to their impressive CVs, playing parts which would have been as hard to grasp as the lead. From their roles as parents of a difficult-to-love son to the “no dramas” attitude of the gun salesman who sells the killer his means of murder, Nitram is an ode to lack of responsibility.

The killer’s relationship with Helen (Essie Davis) provides some stability in his life. Moving into her tired-looking mansion, there is a hint of Sunset Boulevard (1950), where William Holden’s down-on-his-luck screenwriter stays in the mausoleum-style home of a former silent screen star (Gloria Swanson). 

This Davis is Kurzel’s wife and best-known to many of us as Phryne Fisher of the ABC’s television detective series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-15).

The other Davis has been about a long time since leaving Perth’s Loreto Convent in the early 1970s. She has rarely been more effective.

Jones won the best actor award at Cannes for Nitram. You may recognise him (I didn’t) as the young real estate guy thrown by Sam Rockwell from a high-up window in Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri (2017)?

Writing about Nitram is as hard as accepting its subject. Do we need to see films about such grotesque actions? Would the world be better if films about The Holocaust weren’t made? 

Tony Curtis once played the titular role in The Boston Strangler (1968), well-less than a decade after his crimes, so do we wait a reasonable amount of years and then make movies of these atrocities? 

Art has many functions. One is to expose all sides of our history for if we shut all the darkness from our mind, will it open the path for a similar occurrence in the future?

Thanks, in part to our nation’s sensible gun laws, we have at least restricted some of the possible tools that can be used to effect same.


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