Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred. Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Keenan and Essie Davis.
If you just went by the synopsis then you might think that Nitram is going to be another in a long line of true crime stories but you’d be wrong. There’s something special about Australian cinema when it comes to exploring the darker side of everyday life, keeping its feet firmly in the everyday without ever losing the harsh possibilities. Which is exactly what Justin Kurzel achieves here, creating an engrossing drama but having that danger and violence lurking in the background. You can see the foundation for it in The Snowtown Murders and True History of the Kelly Gang but here everything comes together even more strongly to bring a bigger depth. There’s an edge of youthfulness and naivety to the way that the camera moves which then develops in tandem with the changes to Nitram’s (Caleb Landry Jones) character. It has a relatability alongside a rich aesthetic and creates the absolutely perfect ending shot, it’s clever, subtle and rounds out the film effortlessly.
A problem with taking on a true crime story is falling into exploitative or overly sympathetic territory but Nitram walks the line well to avoid those traps. While Nitram is presented in a relatable and sympathetic fashion, Shaun Grant also makes his inherent psychological issues clear. That’s the key to why this film works so well, it gives you an easy character to follow but doesn’t hide his aggressive, reckless and violent potential. It’s a big part of why the story is so gripping because it highlights the path that takes him to such cruel, brutal moment. It doesn’t focus on the violence, instead focusing on how easy it is for a mix of mental health problems, naivety, loneliness and loss to result in tragedy. Even more so it shows the danger of easy access to guns, allowing disturbed individuals to become mass murderers in seconds.
All of which is strengthened further by the stunning quality of the acting, this really is a superb cast. Starting of course with Caleb Landry Jones who perfectly captures the duality of Nitram, how he’s constantly moving back and forth between the dark and light sides of himself, until one finally wins out. He’s a naïve young man who’s never got a handle on life but at the same time has such a propensity for reckless and dangerous behaviour, forever poised on the edge for something disastrous. It’s intense and chaotic but when paired with Essie Davis’ Helen it brings out even more layers. Davis is a wonderful actor, utterly dependable in that she knocks it out of the park in everything that she’s in. This is yet another different role for her, she brings a huge naivety and generosity.
Then you have the incomparable Judy Davis, who brings memorable performances to everything that she’s in and her presence on screen is effortlessly powerful. At its core, this would seem like a simple character, a mother who struggles with her uncontrollable son but it’s what goes unsaid that’s most interesting. You can sense how she recognises the threat Nitram poses but can only do so much to fight against it and doesn’t want to accept the true reality. With the core cast rounded out by Anthony LaPaglia who presents a much bigger vulnerability and tender side to him that isn’t usually seen. It’s a nice change of pace and always great to see actors taking on different challenges.
Nitram is utterly gripping with stellar performances and the highlight of Justin Kurzel’s directorial efforts so far. Caleb Landry Jones brings his usual intensity and creates another emotional and powerful performance. Judy Davis is terrific yet again and Essie Davis continues showing the endless lengths of her range. It captures the deeply troubling and heart-breaking sides to this story while for the most part holding the tone of a compelling family drama, letting the darkness slowly build in the background.