After bringing the true story of his nation’s most notorious outlaw to the big screen a couple of years ago, Aussie auteur Justin Kurzel sheds cinematic light on another deeply dark tale from down under in his latest feature. Nitram is a psychological character drama that centres around the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, a horrific mass shooting in Tasmania during which 35 people were murdered.
Caleb Landry Jones stars as the perpetrator in an eponymous role, so-nicknamed years earlier by playground bullies as it’s the backwards version of his own name, Martin. Living with his supportive mum (Judy Davis) and dad (Anthony LaPaglia) but largely ostracized from society due to his unhinged behaviour, the film explores his troubled psyche in the events leading to the atrocity.
Dealing with very complex subject matter, there’s a slight shift in focus from Kurzel in the approach to telling this story. Usually thought of as an ostentatious and visually exciting filmmaker, this time around the look of the piece, set in a quiet rundown town, is drab and bleak. The grungy, white-trash aesthetic works well with the narrative, giving scope for emotional nuances in the central character study, and the ripple effects of Martin’s volatile and completely illogical tendencies.
Landry Jones is sublime in portraying how deranged the protagonist is, utterly detached from rationality in his interactions with those around him. Acclaimed actress Essie Davis, wife of Kurzel, gives a pivotal performance as Helen, who shares an unorthodox friendship with Martin, the abrupt ending of which might’ve contributed to his downward spiral. Shaun Grant’s tactful script gets inside his head, but never strays towards sympathising with him, and as his already fractured state of mind deteriorates further, the third act is absolutely chilling in its execution.
It’s a significant responsibility for a director to present a retelling of a tragic true event such as this, but Justin Kurzel handles the difficult material with the necessary sensitivity. His shrewd and incisive storytelling amplifies the appalling, and sadly preventable, nature of the killings, and puts a top-of-his-game Caleb Landry Jones at the centre of this disturbing depiction.