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nitram review
A troubled young man sets off on a path to tragedy.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia

nitram poster

Following Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel continues to chronicle his country's most notorious killers with Nitram, based on the story of Martin Bryant, who murdered 35 people in a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania. Bryant had reputedly been inspired by the recent Dunblane massacre in Scotland, and his crime saw Australia rapidly change its gun laws.

Snowtown told the story of John Justin Bunting, a charismatic man who convinced others in joining him to commit murders. If that movie was a cautionary tale of one man wielding a horrifying influence on his community, Nitram is something of the reverse. Kurzel's latest sees a community prod a volatile man until he snaps.

nitram review

How do you hold society to account for the despicable actions of a killer without generating sympathy for said killer? You cast Caleb Landry Jones. Few other actors could embody Bryant, referred to throughout as "Nitram", and generate the mix of empathy and repulsion that Jones provokes in the viewer.

The movie opens with real life footage of a 12-year-old Bryant in the burns ward of a hospital after being injured by fireworks. Asked by the interviewer if he has learned his lesson, Bryant insists that he will continue to play with fireworks. That's what we find the fictional Nitram doing as an adult, driving his neighbours mad in the process. His parents appear to have long given up. His docile father (Anthony LaPaglia) tiptoes around his son, cautious of his violent outbursts. His mother (Judy Davis) pokes and prods him, almost cruelly trying to provoke him to react.

nitram review

Shunned by most in his small town community, Nitram finds a surrogate mother/sister/friend in Helen (Essie Davis), a wealthy heiress who lives a reclusive Norma Desmond-esque life in a crumbling mansion surrounded by cats and dogs. Kurzel refashions the real life Helen Harvey as a faded actress, drawing parallels to Sunset Blvd and the '70s Australian thriller Night Nurse (Kurzel seems to draw inspiration from another Australian film, Michael pate's Tim, in his depiction of Nitram and Helen). The two kindred spirits, both objects of derision in their community, form a bond, with Nitram moving into Helen's home. She splashes out on her male guest, buying him a car and whatever else he wants. She draws the line at his request for a rifle, however, as she abhors guns. Whether Nitram's subsequent actions are on purpose or an accident are as ambiguous in the film as in real life, but it sets him down a dark path that will result in one of Australia's greatest tragedies.

Kurzel pulls off a difficult balancing act of never making excuses for Nitram while also pointing the finger at the wider community that enabled him through inaction at best and cruelty at worst. Nitram is subjected to bullying by those willing to confront him, while everyone else sniggers behind his back. This changes of course when he comes into money courtesy of Helen. An early foreshadowing scene sees a car salesman gladly take money from a woman who isn't quite in her right mind, and this is mirrored later when a clearly deranged Nitram is treated like a visiting sheikh by the staff of a gun store once he lays a bag of cash on the table. It's the same bag that he will later load with weapons.

nitram review

He's only on screen for a couple of minutes, but the performance of Rick James as the gun shop proprietor is staggeringly good. He puts on a smiling salesman act for Nitram, but we can see behind his eyes that he knows he's doing something wrong for the sake of making a quick buck. It's but one of several fantastic performances here. When Judy Davis and Essie Davis sit across from one another at a restaurant on their first tension-filled meeting, it's like Australia's equivalent to the famous meeting of Pacino and De Niro in Heat. Here are two titans of Antipodean acting getting the chance to stare each other down. LaPaglia gives a heartbreaking turn as a heartbroken father, while the various supporting actors are convincingly uncomfortable in Nitram's presence.

A quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that the real life story of Bryant is even more dramatic than Kurzel's translation. Leaving out some of the more shocking details keeps Kurzel's film grounded, and he sensitively opts not to portray Bryant's ultimate crime. Kurzel has pulled off the difficult task of condemning an evil man while making the rest of us wonder if we could do more to prevent the next Martin Bryant.

Nitram is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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