Review: A watchful study of a mass killer unfolds in the wrenching Australian drama ‘Nitram’
When is a soul truly lost? The Australian film “Nitram” works toward some ideas, and they don’t make Justin Kurzel’s disturbing fact-based drama any easier to watch. Its troubled title role, for which Caleb Landry Jones won best actor at Cannes last year, is Kurzel’s and frequent writing collaborator Shaun Grant’s scripted version of the perpetrator of Australia’s worst mass shooting, which occurred at Port Arthur in 1996 and resulted in the deaths of 35 people.
But this is no elegy for a misunderstood outcast. Nor is it a sensationalized portrait of a sicko. In its watchful patience, it’s a character study of unmanageability inside a small orbit of loneliness and despair, building its unease brick by brick until the inevitable reveals itself to be the thing that nobody could have foreseen, yet was unconscionably, harrowingly easy to facilitate.
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The first brick is a piece of archival news footage from 1979, with various children in a Tasmanian hospital’s burns unit being interviewed about the misadventures that put them there. There’s an unmistakably reproachful tone to the unseen correspondent’s voice when she asks one blond boy, “Do you think you’ll be playing with firecrackers anymore?” His casual answer: “Yes.”
Which is how we encounter Jones’ Nitram as the movie opens, an ungainly teenager with stringy hair and stained overalls, lighting and hurling skyward several miniature explosives to the neighbors’ cursing dismay and the resigned glare of his careworn mother (Judy Davis), who wants the firecrackers taken away from him. “He’s not hurting anybody” is the defensive excuse his impassive father (Anthony LaPaglia) offers — and comes to regret soon after when Nitram is caught mischievously brandishing those firecrackers in front of schoolchildren.
What’s clear is that for these emotionally spent parents, their erratic, stunted, medicated son has been an eroding force over time — Davis brilliantly conveying the hardened shell formed around a pitying love, and the equally vivid LaPaglia showing how optimism curdles into hopelessness. Nitram gets a chance, however, at true connection when he develops a close, confidence-boosting bond with a nurturing, eccentric, showbiz-obsessed middle-age heiress named Helen (a terrific Essie Davis) who lives in a crumbling manse with multiple dogs and Gilbert and Sullivan records on repeat. Even with this curious relationship, however, his mother can respond only with a suspicion tinged with envy, and also, pointedly enough, a sense of loss.
His new self-worth crumbles, though, after a pair of calamities unhinge him, and Jones’ physically masterful, bone-deep turn segues from obnoxious oddball to someone whose internal chemistry seems to be a race between relatable despondency or untouchable nihilism. The second half is haunted by a pair of scenes representing these paths: a poignant kitchen table confessional to his mother of the sadness he’s always lived with, after which she tucks him into bed and leaves with a grim, gothic concern on her face; and Nitram’s matter-of-fact purchase of rifles at a disconcertingly accommodating gun store, with no license (not a problem) and a duffel bag full of cash.
Kurzel, who has specialized in Australia’s most notorious figures (his chilling serial killer debut, “The Snowtown Murders,” and the more fanciful “True History of the Kelly Gang”) thankfully doesn’t dramatize the shootings, because he’s convinced the buildup will unnerve you plenty, and it does, like an ever-darkening road. It’s fair to question a movie dominated by the perspective of an actual killer, but in the solemnity of Germain McMicking’s cinematography and Kurzel’s careful approach, we aren’t meant to understand the figure whose real name (not exactly unsolvable) is never uttered, as if to preserve the workings of art from the trappings of publicity.
“Nitram” is social realism designed to scare you into clarity about what gets ignored when lives get smaller and vulnerability mutates. It’s with a gut-wrenching helplessness that we watch the ingredients assemble for what has become our seemingly most preventable modern scourge — someone far gone, armed with what’s all too available.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Starts March 30, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD and AMC+
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