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After 'Snowtown' and 'True History of the Kelly Gang', Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel examines the lead-up to the Port Arthur massacre in this unsettling and astounding drama.
By Sarah Ward
September 30, 2021
By Sarah Ward
September 30, 2021

Monster movies have their place. Slasher films, and every horror flick about fiendish foes, too. But features about real-life atrocities — events such as the Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were murdered and 23 others wounded — should never share the same notions of evil. Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant understand this, and demonstrate a canniness so astute that it's unnerving. They make movies that take this notion as a given, unpacking dark chapters of Australia's history guided with it as their guiding principle. That's clear in Nitram, their new film about the events preceding that tragic incident in Tasmania in 1996, just as it was in their 2011 debut Snowtown. Both movies dive into loathsome true crimes. Both films are difficult, distressing, disquieting and disturbing, understandably. Both features are also brilliant for many reasons, the fact that they're about people rather than monsters high among them.

It's terrifying to contemplate something so gut-wrenchingly abominable as the bodies-in-barrels murders, which Snowtown depicts, and to face the fact that people rather than evil were behind them. Nitram courts and provokes the same response as it focuses on something equally as ghastly, and similarly refuses to see the perpetrator in shades of black and white. In their third collaboration — with 2019's bold and blazing True History of the Kelly Gang in the middle — Kurzel and Grant don't excuse their protagonist. They don't try to justify the unjustifiable, explain it, exploit it, or provide neat answers to a near-unfathomable crime. Rather, they're exactingly careful in depicting the lone gunman responsible for Australia's worst single-shooter mass killing, right down to refusing to name him. (The movie's title comes from his moniker backwards, and it's all he's ever called on-screen.) Nitram does depict its eponymous figure's mental health issues and medication, and his status as an outcast, but not as reasons for what's to come. It shows his complicated relationships, mentions his struggles as a boy and sees how he's teased as an adult, yet never deems these motives. All such things can be part of someone's life, or not, and that person can commit heinous deeds, or not — and Nitram doesn't ever even dream of seeing that as a straightforward cause-and-effect equation.

In his fifth stint behind the lens — 2015's blistering Macbeth and 2016's abysmal Assassin's Creed are also on his resume — Kurzel does adopt a hazy aesthetic, though. The film isn't dreamy, instead resembling anxious memories worn and frayed from too much time looping in someone's mind. Its imagery is boxed in within a constricted frame, heightening that sensation; however, cinematographer Germain McMicking (Acute Misfortune) shoots Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones, The Outpost) as if he's roving around the space to test the boundaries. The character does just that narrative-wise. He earns his wearied mother's (Judy Davis, Mystery Road) constant exasperation, and almost everyone else's dismay. His father (Anthony LaPaglia, Below) expresses more warmth, but is just as affected. After knocking on her door attempting to start a lawn-mowing business, eccentric lottery heiress Helen (Essie Davis, Babyteeth) shows Nitram kindness and showers him with gifts, but even with her he's still pushing limits. When she sees him shooting at an old car with an air rifle in her sprawling backyard, she forbids it. It's her sternest moment. She also asks him not to lunge at the steering wheel as she's driving and, as turbulent as ever, Nitram keeps doing it.

Crucially, Nitram anchors its namesake's notions of right and wrong in a childhood interview with the real-life gunman, with the archival footage opening the film. In hospital after frolicking with fireworks, the boy who'll grow up to blight Australian history forever is asked if he has learned from the experience. "Yes" is his answer, "but I'm still playing with 'em," he continues. Nitram isn't ever so overt as to echo those words throughout the movie, and it also doesn't need to. The idea ripples through every scene anyway, whether its central figure is later trifling with firecrackers at a school as an adult, lapping up Helen's affection amid her beloved brood of dogs and the constant sound of Gilbert and Sullivan show tunes, or slapping his dad out of an emotional low. Another scene — a powerhouse due to the inimitable Judy Davis, and a searing monologue delivered with festering pain — cements the idea that Nitram is cognisant of how his actions affect others, but that truth also resounds in Jones' Cannes Film Festival Best Actor-winning performance. He plays the part like Nitram knows he's testing boundaries, and knows the effect he frequently has on others. While even later still, the character tells his mother that when he watches himself on camcorder footage, he's not certain who he sees, there's never any doubt he's cognisant of how the world perceives him.

Jones' work here is fragile but weighty, volatile but lived-in, boisterous but anguished, and petulant but intimidating. It's all these things at once and, even with other menacing roles in his on-screen past, it's phenomenal. Davis, LaPaglia and Davis make as much of an impression, one stiffened by time, one stripped bare through denial, one lonely and generous, and Kurzel shows that his winning way with actors is just as masterful here as in almost everything (Assassin's Creed aside) on his filmography. His love of sound and fury remains intact here as well, and it certainly signifies plenty. Every second of Nitram is designed to keep unpacking not only the lead-up to the Port Arthur tragedy — an event that's purposefully never shown itself, but inherently tints the film with foreboding, tension, horror and unease — but also the views of masculinity that've become as baked into Australia as the ochre-hued soil. Every moment is meticulously crafted to unsettle, to challenge, and to confront the reality that something this abhorrent happened at the hands of this man.

Nitram doesn't trade in answers, but it does come with a message. Its gun scenes haunt, including when amassing weapons proves effortless if you have the cash and inclination. These sequences also help explain why Kurzel and Grant have taken on a clearly nerve-wracking endeavour, as the movie's post-script underscores. Australia's response to April 1996, in enacting tough gun legislation and buybacks, helped console a grieving country, but those laws have since been watered down. Now, more firearms exist across the nation than did then. That too is blood-curdling and traumatic, and making sure it resonates is another of this tremendous film's achievements.

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