It’s a strange title, Nitram, one that, from the outside is hard to even know exactly how to pronounce, yet alone divine the meaning. But, after two hours in the company of Justin Kurzel’s deeply disquieting new film, its brilliant purpose falls into place, the final part of Kurzel’s mission to explore the events behind the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Australia without ever descending into ghoulish exploitation or attempts to overtly humanise the monstrous shooter.
Nitram is the name Kurzel gives to Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones), whose murder of dozens of people in 1996 (not long after the UK’s own horrifying Dunblane shooting) prompted a massive change in Australia’s gun laws. Pointedly, Bryant is never referred to, either in the script or credits, as Martin, always Nitram, a nickname from school that Bryant hates. This is not a biopic, with Nitram himself less a humanised character and more another cog in the machine of cataclysmic failures, from the personal to the structural, that allowed the Massacre to occur.
Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant have no interest in showing us the killings themselves, so instead work their way backwards into the months leading up to the shooting. We first meet Nitram as he aggravates the neighbours by setting off fireworks in his garden before having a tense dinner with his battle-axe mum (Judy Davis) and weak, overly-indulgent dad (Anthony LaPaglia). He’s clearly troubled, but also just a nasty piece of work who’s never having more fun than when someone else is furious or scared.
The only person he’s even remotely polite to is Helen (Kurzel regular Essie Davis), a wealthy but vulnerable woman who invites Nitram to live with her after he charms her during a stint as her dogwalker – it’s her money that will eventually grant Nitram the resources to buy the guns for his spree. Everyone in Nitram lives neck deep in toxicity, and the atmosphere that Kurzel creates is choking. Even trips to the beach do nothing to ease the mounting sense of dread, and, even without violence, there are some truly horrifying scenes.
Pick of the bunch is Nitram’s trip to the gun store, where the casually excited discussion of the freely available high-powered rifles and shotguns is just as stomach-churning as the moments in which we see him practicing his shooting. Nitram might be good for very little, but he’s a crack shot, hitting his targets without a single flinch or distraction.
Landry Jones, missing something behind the eyes but never descending into full-on panto psychosis, is perfectly cast here and does immense work in a real tightrope walk of a performance – he won Best Actor at Cannes, quite deservedly – while LaPaglia and the two Davises are also superb. Judy Davis in particular will haunt you as a mother who has learnt to weaponise her awful son’s emotional issues, but has long since given up on actually trying to communicate with him – one pivotal glance between the pair tells you all you need to know about this catastrophically horrible family.
After dabbling in Shakespeare, video games, and foundational Australian legends, Nitram returns Kurzel to the scuzzy true-crime that first made his name with Snowtown, and it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Sean Durkin’s Southcliffe – the Channel 4 drama loosely based on the Hungerford Massacre. But this is a more analytical and morally forthright production than either of those, pulled off with unimpeachable restraint and clarity of purpose without losing the visceral sense of disgust a story like this needs, a gripping and important reckoning with a national tragedy.