At the tail end of April 1996 Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old with a history of mental instability, killed 35 people and wounded another 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, to date still the largest massacre caused by one person in Australia’s history. As a result the Australian government massively overhauled its gun laws. Even if the massacre happened 25 years ago, Australia still bears its scars, so many Australians weren’t exactly thrilled when Justin Kurzel announced he had chosen the mass killing as the subject of his fifth feature film Nitram. Focusing strictly on Bryant in the lead-up to his heinous act, Nitram doesn’t offer any new insights into Bryant’s motivations for the killings, and is above all a platform for American actor Caleb Landry Jones to showcase a strong, if highly mannered performance (which netted him Cannes’ Best Actor prize), backed up by a small but excellent supporting cast.
Nitram (Bryant’s first name deliberately reversed for the film to not add to the real Bryant’s notoriety) is a loner teenager living with his parents (Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis). A young man with already a string of incidents of troubling behavior in his past, Nitram has a strained relationship with his strict mother, while getting along only marginally better with his forgiving father. Going around the neighborhood looking for customers for his lawnmowing services, he meets Helen Harvey (Essie Davis), a rich and eccentric heiress. The two outsiders strike up a friendship, though from the outset it is clear it is not a healthy one. Harvey, living alone, is looking to connect to a human soul, and Nitram, seemingly uninterested in any person altogether, connects because of the benefits their odd relationship offers him. When Harvey dies in a car crash, a result of Nitram repeatedly jerking the steering wheel, she leaves her fortune to Nitram.
Around the same time, Nitram’s father has the intention to buy a bed-and-breakfast he has had his eye on, and is trying to get financing together. When he is finally ready to make the purchase it turns out that another couple has already snapped up the property, leading Nitram’s father into a depression. This sequence of events seems to leave a mark on Nitram. When his dad eventually commits suicide, Nitram develops an interest in guns and procures a semi-automatic weapon without much issue thanks to Australia’s (then) lax gun laws. In the film’s final scenes Nitram commits the murders the whole film has been building towards. The first victims are the couple that snatched away the dream of Nitram’s dad, after which he moves on to shooting random people at a Port Arthur café while filming his act. Kurzel smartly decides to let these murders happen off-screen, which removes any form of sensationalism while keeping the strong impact of the film’s ending.
Except for those viewers going in completely blind, the outcome Nitram works towards is known from the start. This doesn’t lessen the feeling of dread that hangs over the film like a wet blanket. Given the outcome one might expect violent outbursts from Nitram, but these are few and far between, and given that there is no eruption of violence at the end, the continuously building pressure without any sort of release valve makes Nitram a hard film to watch, and an even harder one to digest. Nitram is a film that thrives mostly on atmosphere and performance, and less on incident. This would not be a problem if the film offered any insights into its characters, but this is where it falters. What motivated Nitram to do what he did, and what caused him to become what he became is not any clearer than it had already been after psychologists assessed the real life Bryant. What exactly is going on inside his head is a mystery the film does not resolve (nor does it presume to), which leaves us with the question: what is the point, other than to make the audience feel dread? What is a character study that doesn’t illuminate its character?
This is also a problem for Jones, as he doesn’t have much to work with in terms of background for his character. That he still makes quite an impression is testament to the strength of his performance, however studied it is. Online comparisons have been made with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, and while that isn’t a really valid touchpoint with regards to the character, the approach by both actors is fairly similar, albeit Phoenix makes his protagonist more theatrical (as befits Joker). Jones’ stares and hesitant mumbles effectively convey a ticking timebomb, and there are moments when the actor is electrifying even if his character has a limited outline. Of the supporting cast Judy Davis especially stands out, playing her character with a mixture of stern headmaster and concerned mother who knows she has to be tough on Nitram to constrain him.
In the end, Nitram is a bit of an empty shell of a film, worth watching for the nearly two hours of twisting the thumbscrews, but ultimately it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the question whether opening up a still fresh wound on the Australian soul was worth it.