Released 2021. Director: Justin Kurzel
IN APRIL OF 1996 AUSTRALIA SUFFERED ITS MOST HORRIFIC MASS SHOOTING when a gunman opened fire at Port Arthur, a popular tourist destination in Tasmania. 35 people were killed and 28 more were wounded. This was the event that led the government to launch a comprehensive reform in gun laws. Twenty-five years later, a movie made about the events leading up to that fateful day, focusing on the perpetrator, proved to be controversial as the massacre remains a raw wound on the national psyche.
One concern was the movie would not only bring back painful memories but also make the killer’s name a media focus again, when it should, for those who survived the nightmare, never again be raised.
In the movie his first name is reversed as Nitram, his last name is never mentioned and he’s played by American actor Caleb Landry Jones. We see archival footage of Nitram as a boy being interviewed at a hospital after an accident playing with fireworks. The boy says he’s learned his lesson – but has he? As an adult Nitram continues to play with fire, even handing flaring fireworks over the fence to school kids. Soon he’ll get his hands on something even more lethal.
The script, written by Shaun Grant, takes us through Nitram’s life in the few years leading up to his shooting rampage. If there’s a sense of anxious energy in the narrative, it’s mainly the edginess Jones brings to his character, his unstable mental state unfathomable behind eyes that rarely allow you into his private thoughts.
Nitram befriending reclusive millionairess Helen (Essie Davis) is a major turning point in both their lives. The socially ostracised and intellectually disabled man finds in Helen a friend who doesn’t judge. The misunderstood loner finds in Nitram a companion with no ulterior motive.
After Helen dies in a car crash and Nitram inherits her riches, the man with a childlike mind would bring stacks of cash to go out spending, including buying himself a first-class ticket to Los Angeles. Even without a license, he begins to stockpile weapons as gun-shop owners turn a blind eye when he offers up bags of money.
What I find particularly revealing is the depiction of Nitram’s action with regard to his father, similarly nameless and simply called dad, played by Anthony Lapaglia. Their relationship is characterised by an immense amount of frustration but the affection is evident through the rough patches. When dad becomes despondent after failing to purchase the B&B property he’s worked hard to raise money for, Nitram brings a bag full of cash to the new owners. In his mind, buying the property will make his dad happy again. When dad falls into depression and refuses to get up from the couch, Nitram hits him with such force and outright authority, instincts tell him he’s now the man in charge and this is how he saves his dad.
Mum, as played by Judy Davis, is visibly strained and disturbed yet hardened and as Nitram observes, never sheds a tear at her husband’s funeral. We look at the lives of this family through a prism of tragedy. What is more tragic and horrific is the violent way the innocent lives lost to a man’s rage on that fateful day. The victims are nameless and faceless because this story is not about them. Still, it would have been respectful to include their names as a tribute and a gesture of remembrance at the end when we’re being told the story of the man who brought their lives to a brutal and abrupt end.
Does the movie ultimately humanise or demonise Australia’s worst mass murderer? Some would argue a movie like Nitram is completely unnecessary. Yet if we simply bury any tragic event and never talk about it in public, how would we know if we could learn anything from it?
Despite the subject matter, the movie is never exploitative and very careful with its depiction of violence. The actors bring a lot of empathy to their roles and director Justin Kurzel does an extraordinary job to reach a very fine balance in the portrayal of their troubled lives. The result is an incredibly controlled yet disturbing reflection that ends on a bleak note. No healing, no hope; but there’s undeniable power in its great restrain.
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