Kurzel’s contemplative take on the events that led to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre is powerful in its quiet sensitivity, featuring Cannes Best Actor winner Caleb Landry Jones in a chilling performance as the mass shooter.
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis, Sean Keenan
Plot: Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.
Awards: Won Best Actor & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mental Well-Being; Gun Control; Social Outcast
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Screener – Singapore Film Society Showcase
Winner of the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, Nitram is one of the standout films of 2021, yet has somehow quietly left the radar without much fanfare.
The latest from Australian director Justin Kurzel (of 2015’s stylised vision of Macbeth), Nitram centers on the events that led to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, one of the world’s worst mass shooting incidents of the 20th century.
Here these ‘events’ are rendered personal as we follow the mass shooter (‘Nitram’ is Martin spelt backwards; the criminal Martin Bryant is still languishing in prison, serving 35 life sentences), as played by Caleb Landry Jones in a chilling performance.
Kurzel shows us the environment that the killer had been raised in, with the central focus on his problematic relationship with his parents.
His mother, excellently played by Judy Davis, is detestable in his eyes, while he tries to seek solace, albeit rather successfully, in a wealthy if lonely older woman who cares for him as a companion.
“I looked around, and there he was… Laughing at my pain. Laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world.”
Nitram is for most parts quiet and contemplative, giving the dark subject matter the requisite sensitivity so as to avoid the trap of over-dramatisation. The most illuminative aspect of Kurzel’s work is that it shows us that a person doesn’t turn evil overnight.
Being ostracised, not listened to and shunned by society because of behavioural issues, it doesn’t come as a surprise that such a person suffering from a severe lack of mental wellness would commit such an atrocity.
The accessibility of guns and rifles by the common man without detailed checks is also another significant problem, one that the film makes explicit in an unsettling scene featuring the would-be killer going weapon-shopping.
Nitram ultimately isn’t about the tragedy, but a delicate plea for everyone to be more compassionate to each other. You never know when someone, with no intentions at all to harm, is triggered enough to do something nasty.