Caleb Landry Jones is unbearably vivid in a film that’s all the more stomach-churning for the violence that it leaves offscreen.
It would be hard to overstate the fear that I felt in anticipation of watching Justin Kurzel’s “Nitram” (an experience that I’ve semi-deliberately avoided since its premiere at the tail end of last year’s Cannes). For one thing, Kurzel has a rare gift for soul-clouding dread. I was first introduced to his work through “Snowtown,” a film so all-consumingly grim that it seemed to suck the light out of the universe in real time, leaving only the projector beam as a hostage to bear witness; it’s the kind of thing that demands to be written about in the past tense, as the stuff of memory rather than something that could still be queued up on Netflix, because there’s no way in hell I’m ever watching it again.
A 2011 docudrama about a string of murders that plagued Australia during the ’90s, “Snowtown” had a body count of 12. I knew that “Nitram” — the unflinching portrait of a severely troubled young man during the weeks before he commits the worst mass shooting in his country’s history—would almost triple that number. And though it’s no secret that Kurzel’s film cuts away a few milliseconds before the Port Arthur massacre begins, it made me queasy to think what someone with his talent for capturing the corpse flower stench that hovers around the roots of male violence would do with this story .
I may not have shared the same personal objections that have been raised by some members of the Hobart community since the project was first announced (on the contrary, I’ve argued for the potential value of similar films), but I still wasn’t eager to stomach another wallop of sickening helplessness — another “Dark Night” of the soul haunted by the inexplicability of something that millennials like me have been raised to expect like rain. Likewise, certain as I was that Caleb Landry Jones would deliver a convincing performance in the title role (“Nitram” only refers to the actual perpetrators by spelling his first name backwards), the mere prospect of modern cinema’s most fidgety weirdo playing a mass shooter is so vivid that actually seeing it on screen almost feels unnecessary.
In the end, Jones’ performance is even more lifelike than I feared — a tortured and astonishingly nuanced rendering of a childlike creature whose id could only be tempered by love for so long before it thing violence instead. And it should go without saying that Kurzel’s fatalistic storytelling so pungently exhumes the pain that led up to that awful day in April 1996 that you can smell the death coming several hours in advance.
But if “Nitram” unfolds in nearly perfect lockstep with the film I had braced myself for, it does so towards unexpected ends. If Kurzel has made yet another movie about the impenetrable mystery of why someone would be compelled to slaughter innocent people, he’s also made one that underlines how in no uncertain terms. One of the many reasons that “Nitram” doesn’t need to depict the climactic terror is because the film’s only proper conflict is between the inscrutability of its crime and the obviousness with which it was perpetrated.
The film is structured like the darkest joke ever told (did you hear the one about the severely disturbed young man who walked into a gun store with a duffel bag full of cash and asked to buy an AR-15?), and the punchline is the salesman declaring, with zero irony, that his customer would’ve needed a license if he wanted to get a handgun. After 90 minutes of watching the storm clouds of an atrocity grow darker on the horizon, “Nitram” stops in its tracks to announce that it wouldn’t have been made in the first place — that this man’s life wouldn’t have resulted in the end of so many others — if we didn’t make high-capacity killing machines available to anyone with the money to pay for them. History has borne that out, and Kurzel’s account soaks in the horror of its own preventability. It’s only when “Nitram” moves past the moment that should have been the end of this story that its tension becomes truly unbearable.
Not that earlier stretches of the film are any less difficult to watch. Even the snippet of archival footage at the very start is uneasy, as the actual perpetrator appears as a young boy in a Tasmanian burn unit who plainly states, to the bewilderment of a local news crew, that he won’t stop playing with the fireworks that scalded his body. And he doesn’t. As an adult, Nitram is still very much a child. The exact nature of his intellectual disabilities are as hard to pin down as they are irrelevant to this story — and Jones’ roman candle of a performance is too raw and implosive to be approached diagnostically — but it’s clear that he hasn’t changed since that day in the hospital, he’s only gotten taller.
Nitram still loves fireworks, which ends him more to the kids at the elementary school near his parents’ house than it does to the neighbors. And that’s just as well, because he relates to children — who are similarly driven by impulse and unbothered by consequence — better than he does to adults. Nitram’s mother (a brilliant Judy Davis, agonizing and severe as a woman who’s lost her son in all but one of the ways that a mother can) has lost her patience for his antics, and keeps him medicated in an effort to cut her losses. His “good cop,” ultra-permissive father (a sweet and heartbreakingly sad Anthony LaPaglia), on the other hand, has deluded himself into thinking that everything will smooth itself out if he can just save up enough money to buy his dream home.
Neither of them know what to do with their malevolent son, and each of them has severed different parts of themselves in order to stop the pain from spreading. Aided by the film’s immaculate cast, Shaun Grant’s script finds pity for Nitram’s parents without completely absolving them of their son’s actions; they’re his first victims, in a way, but they were also their community’s first line of defense.
The only adult who’s able to relate to Nitram at his level is a kooky heiress named Helen (a predictably remarkable Essie Davis), whom he meets while touring the neighborhood and threatening to mow people’s lawns. The details of her biography are left unclear, and Nitram isn’t the type to ask questions, but Helen’s dilapidated mansion suggests that her life was stunted by a tragedy of some kind as well — the Miss Havisham vibes are strong, but her cat t -shirt, moldy braces, and penchant for giggling imply (accurately or not) that her internal clock stopped ticking before she was old enough to put on a wedding dress. Awed by Nitram in a sometimes disquietingly erotic way, Helen offers her new friend the love he’s always needed, but also threatens to leave him with a loss he’s never known.
Even the lightest moments of their time together (ie driving around Hobart while singing Gilbert & Sullivan) are soured by the sense that something is profoundly off, and Nitram’s penchant for swerving into traffic — figuratively and literally — ensures that every scene is kindled with fear . And while “Nitram” doesn’t forewarn viewers about its namesake’s place in history, the film is so palpably steeped in sickness that even people who don’t know where it’s going won’t be shocked when it gets there.
In lieu of suspense, Kurzel steadily draws the oxygen out of the frame until you’re gasping for someone to intervene. By the time Nitram walks into that gun store, even those maniacs who pose with assault rifles on their Christmas cards might agree with mandatory background checks. Of course, Kurzel’s film wasn’t made with foreign audiences in mind, and “Nitram” ends with a nauseating caution to American viewers who might be inclined to co-opt this tragedy as their own: No part of Australia has fully implemented the firearms restrictions that were signed into law following the Port Arthur massacre, and there are more guns in the country now than there were in 1996.
In that light — and in light of the controversy that Kurzel’s film has sparked in its home state — perhaps it would be fair to argue that “Nitram” ultimately isn’t for the people who are still haunted by what happened at Port Arthur, let alone the people who lost their loved ones on that terrible day. Perhaps (and perhaps unfairly), it’s just another tax on the inestimable price they’ve had to pay for the failures of their community. I can’t argue away their pain any more than I can insist that IndieWire readers should endure this jaundiced nightmare of a movie for their benefit, and no film about a mass shooting has ever been so forthright about film’s inability to directly prevent the next one .
Kurzel is well aware that such atrocities only create a short window of time to enact legislative change; he knows that “Nitram” is several decades too late. So he and Grant have strived to make something that might inspire a change of culpability, instead — something that firmly places the guilt on the perpetrators (and on his parents, to a certain extent), while also making it clear that the onus for responding to it falls squarely on “us.” That we’re no different than that little boy in the Tasmanian burn unit who, when asked if he’s learned his lesson about playing with firecrackers, bluntly responds “Yes, but I’m still playing with them.” It’s a chuckle-worthy moment in a kids say the darndest things kind of way, but you won’t be laughing by the time “Nitram” leaves us feeling like the butt of the joke.
“Nitram” is now playing in select theaters, on VOD, and streaming on AMC+.