‘Nitram’ and the mixed, morbid history of movies about mass shooters

Justin Kurzel’s film was polarising before its release, but it proves a worthwhile watch in a genre that too often descends into empty exploitation

Few types of films are more uncomfortable and more stomach-turning, than those centered around mass shootings and their perpetrators. This is the genre to which Nitram belongs. Directed by Justin Kurzel, the film is an elegantly haunting look at the life of the notorious Martin Bryant – who murdered 35 people and injured 23 others at Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996.

It is also the genre I have spent the last few days diving into, watching and rewatching a ghastly collection of varyingly successful productions. Any artist entering this arena navigates a minefield of ethical considerations, with no one single “right” way to frame these sorts of narratives but many that are wrong – or highly problematic. The clear “don’ts” in this genre include: do not glamorise the perpetrators; do not sympathise with the perpetrators; do not simplify complex scenarios; do not sensationalise events. The “do’s” include showing sensitivity to victims, if the films are based on or inspired by real-life incidents, and presenting nuanced portrayals.

In the lead-up to its release, Nitram (predictably) generated responses ranging from impassioned objection to calls for nuance. Now the film is out, not even the wariest of viewers could credibly accuse Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant (teaming up for the third time, following Snowtown and True History Of The Kelly Gang) of depicting Bryant – who is never named, even in post-film text inserts – in ways that glamorise his actions or asks us to sympathise with him.

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Bryant is bullied, but Nitram’s story is not his “revenge” against a cruel world. Played with bleary-eyed shiftiness by Caleb Landry Jones, whose intensely strange performance – gripping, elusive, tough to define – won him a Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Bryant is a complex character in a film that swims in grey areas. It was made in Kurzel’s distinctive style, which is best summarised in emotional rather than stylistic terms: as the sensation of slow-moving dread, creeping towards dramatic crescendo.

Insulating Nitram against claims of sensationalism is the filmmaker’s decision not to recreate the events that took place at Port Arthur. The story concludes just before Bryant begins his massacre, therefore all meaning in the film – everything it has to say – must lead up to that. Paul Greengrass took the exact opposite trajectory in his 2018 portrait of Anders Behring Breivik and the 2011 Norway attacks. 22 July commences with a bloodcurdling reenactment of Breivik’s crimes – first detonating a bomb that killed eight people, then visiting an island where he executed 69 attendees of a summer camp – before launching a broader narrative studying motives and implications.

22 July
Jonas Strand Gravli in ’22 July’. Credit: Netflix

The film’s goal, in those early moments, is to evoke a feeling of what it would have felt like to have been there on the island, chillingly rendered in Greengrass’ handheld vérité style. The experience is not remotely cathartic; you watch while your stomach sinks. The worst of it is over in half an hour, with Breivik’s arrest marking the end of act one and the beginning of a search for meaning.

Watching 22 July is a gut-wrenching experience, even by the intense standards of this genre. But Greengrass’ scrutinisation of his subject – including Breivik’s extreme right-wing militant ideology – is constructed intelligently, in the belief it’s best to shine a light on difficult topics rather than let them remain in the shadows. Coupled with the inspiring story of a survivor of the attack (Jonas Strand Gravli) who learns to walk again and rebuilds himself physically and mentally, the director crafts a film that is morally and intellectually defensible.

The structure of most mass murder movies (including Nitram) doesn’t allow for uplifting portraits of survivors, due to their positioning of massacres as climactic events situated at the end of the narrative. This tends to create an uneasy aura that hangs over everything, the audience nervously anticipating the inevitable. This feeling was exploited by Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired 2003 drama Elephant, a visually elegant film – the kind critics love to call “lyrical” – filled with long shots of students hanging out and navigating the school grounds before the shooting.

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Elephant 2003
Alex Frost in ‘Elephant’. Credit: Alamy

We watch these shots with a heavy heart, understanding what’s coming. Then, when it arrives, the director’s handling is hauntingly empty and procedural, as if Van Sant is content with saying: “don’t look away, we must confront the banality of evil”. This is common in mass murder movies: obsessing with realistic dramatisations rather than expressing ideas that move or challenge the viewer in profound ways.

It’s certainly the case in 2002’s Zero Day, a disturbingly authentic found-footage production that aesthetically resembles the knockabout texture of an early Harmony Korine film and follows two shooters preparing for (then executing) their massacre. The soon-to-be killers document their various activities and interactions in extensive video diaries, director Ben Coccio emphasising this faux real and deliberately scuzzy aesthetic. It’s a tough and unrewarding experience, revolving around intensely unlikeable characters, with no clear moral or political outlook.

Like Van Sant, Coccio never satisfactorily answers the question of why we are watching, presumably also falling back on the idea that one should not ignore the existence of evil. This perspective is also a part of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, a grossly simplistic portrait of the titular child who was born evil, pure and simple. Growing up, the protagonist finds various ways to taunt his mother (Tilda Swinton) and as a teenager (played by Ezra Miller) commits a mass murder with a bow and arrow shortly before his 16th birthday.

We Need To Talk About Kevin
Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’. Credit: Alamy

The film is interesting not because of its depiction of Kevin, but because of the harassment Swinton’s character experiences as a result of her son’s actions. The 2010 drama Beautiful Boy is framed from a similar point of view. Married couple Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) hear news reports of a school shooting and nervously wait for an update about their son Sam (Kyle Gallner). When a police officer arrives at their home, he tells them that Sam is dead – and that he was also the killer.

Put through the wringer, Bill and Kate bicker, argue and pour salt over old wounds, desperate to lay blame at the other person’s feet. Besides complicated feelings, they deal with unwanted media attention, also a core part of 2012’s dodgily acted and directed Hello Herman. A 16-year-old (Garrett Backstrom) murders dozens of fellow students, then emails a famous TV journalist (Norman Reedus) asking to be on his show. Director Michelle Danner attempts to make a film that takes a stand against bullying and interrogates the media, but it comes across as misguided and overly simplistic.

Which brings us back to Nitram. You won’t find anything clumsy about this intensely gripping and contemplative production; if a better and more nuanced film has been made about a mass shooting event, I haven’t seen it. Nor, at this point in time, to be frank, am I in the mood to keep looking. As an individual, I need to take a break from this godforsaken genre. As a society, perhaps we should keep in mind the potential value of art that takes us to dark places. There aren’t many reasons to watch Hello Herman, but I’m fond of the proverb quoted before the film begins: “If we hope to heal the pain, we must first discover the cause.”

Nitram is out in select Australian cinemas now. It will stream on Stan at a later date

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