Since Nitram wrapped in March 2021, there have been 22 mass shootings in the US alone. Watching a film about Australia’s worst ever gun crime, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, so soon after the Uvalde school shooting, Buffalo and Oslo is almost unbearable. But there’s arguably never been a more important time for it.
Based on the real events that led to the Port Arthur massacre, Nitram is a film that will deeply upset everyone who watches it. Yet, it delivers a powerful anti-gun message that needs to be heard as loudly as possible. Much more than just a call for disarmament, Nitram digs deep into the damaged psychology at the root of all violence to tell a remarkably brave, sensitive and vital story about social support and mental disability.
Director Justin Kurzel made a name for himself with the brutal real-life murder drama Snowtown, before tackling bigger budgets on Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed. The idea of such an unapologetically visceral filmmaker taking on the Port Arthur story will be enough to put some viewers off. The reality, though, is almost more chilling: Nitram keeps its violence entirely off-screen, choosing shocking restraint even in the film’s final moments.
The true violence of the film is all in Nitram’s head. Based on the real-life mass murderer Martin Bryant, Nitram (“Martin” spelled backwards) suffers from a mix of schizophrenia, ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. Played here by Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) in one of the most incredible performances of the year, Nitram is a man with the mind of a child. Obsessed with fireworks, unable to read basic human emotions, and constantly amused by testing the limits of right and wrong, Nitram is in need of a lot more support than his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) can give him.
Finding an oddly inappropriate new-mother figure in the shape of wealthy recluse Helen (Essie Davis, from The Babadook, rounding out an unbelievably strong cast), Nitram starts spending time away from his family. He’s given more money than he knows what to do with by a woman who clearly just enjoys the company. When devastating events leave Nitram feeling angry and isolated, the film starts darkening. After walking into a hunting shop without a firearms license, he purchases a duffel bag full of assault weapons with a minimum of fuss; it’s easily the most chilling scene in the film, and one that should ring alarm bells for lawmakers in America especially.
By the time the film ends, the trauma of the Port Arthur massacre feels as fresh and unbearable as it did in 1996. Condemned in Australia by two of the victim’s families, there’s an argument to be made for Nitram not being watched at all. But by refusing to paint Nitram as an out-and-out monster, the film’s masterstroke is its compassion. It exposes politicians as the real criminals in an unspeakable tragedy that we still haven’t learned from today.
Nitram isn’t an easy watch, but it is an essential one.
- Director: Justin Kurzel
- Featuring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis
- Release date: July 1