Nitram is a 2021 psychological thriller, following Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones), a thinly-veiled version of spree killer Martin Bryant, in the lead-up to the 1996 mass shooting Port Arthur, Tasmania, which left 35 people dead. Directed by Justin Kurzel, who adapted other famous Australian crime cases like Snowden for the screen, it’s another in a long line of movies trying to make sense of major tragedies that have helped shape the history of the communities they impacted.
Nitram is, from scene to scene, an often-excellent movie. The performances are as tremendous as you’ve heard, and I’d expect no less from this incredible cast. Caleb Landry Jones as Nitram has this simmering, unsettling energy to him, an awkwardness that’s sometimes hard to watch, while Essie Davis shines as Helen, the brittle, lonely billionaire who forms a mutually obsessive relationship with Nitram. Judy Davis is probably the standout here, as Nitram’s beleaguered mother, and Anthony LaPaglia, while underused, brings a softness and a sadness to his role. There’s some great dialogue, good character work, Kurzel’s handsome direction, all of it coming together to make me forget about the big problem at the centre of this movie.
I think the ultimate question with Nitram is: why? Obviously, Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant feel strongly about this story, and, in an era where mass shootings dominate such a huge amount of mainstream news, maybe it felt relevant to re-hash the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, but if you’re going to stir up such painful – and recent, as the protests from family members of victims against the film showed – historical events, surely, you need to be approaching it with a clear vision and message.
Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. There is a message here, mostly relatively clumsily pulled in over the course of the third act, as Nitram manages to collect a large number of guns before committing the shooting, his cash allowing him to overstep what few safeguards there are in place before acquiring his weapons. The film ends on a card discussing the changes in gun law that came after the shooting and continuing issues around gun legislation and control in Australia; it’s a genuinely worthy point, and one I, as a viewer, am very sympathetic towards, but it’s not one I feel the film actually does any decent work exploring.
Because if this was a movie about gun control in Australia, or even in general, then it shouldn’t have been so intently focused on Nitram without offering us a deeper look into his own motivations beyond “he feels alienated due to his struggles with mental illness”. The film has such a micro-focus on its titular character that it fails to address the cultural influences that not only allowed Nitram to horde so many guns, but also what drove him to desire them in the first place. I’ve been turning the film over in my head in the week since I’ve seen it, and I really can’t piece together exactly what the movie was trying to say about what drove Nitram to start collecting guns.
Was it always his intention to commit a mass shooting? That seems unlikely, as footage relating to the contemporaneous Dunblane school shooting in Scotland is strongly suggested to spark the idea. So what was it about the guns which attracted him? That’s arguably one of the most interesting questions the film could have touched on, perhaps getting into the issues of masculinity and pop cultural representation of such weapons, but we barely get anything about his interest in weapons apart from a few scenes of him shooting an air gun. If you’re going to tell a character-centric piece about gun control, surely the most important part of it is exploring the appeal of these kinds of weapons to someone like Nitram; if the film was meant to be more of a broad cultural exploration of guns in Australia, then focusing it so tightly on Nitram was a mistake.
And given that this was a fictionalization of Martin Bryant – leaving out some seemingly-significant factors such as his apparent alcoholism and suicidality leading up to the murders, not to mention alleged animal abuse he committed as a younger man – there was no need to stick to the often-oppressive storytelling of real life. Grant and Kurzel could have given us some cinematic flare to drive home a clearer and more cogent point about guns and gun crime and how they relate to this specific man. But instead, they inhabit this strange, uneasy middle ground of relying enough on true events as to be hurtful to the people living with their aftermath, while additionally not using their fictionalized take to paper over some of the cracks that real life naturally leaves when it comes to stories. If the film had been from someone else’s point of view, maybe it would make more sense that we don’t ultimately get answers to these questions, but given that we follow Nitram through the entire movie, leaving some of these threads hanging feels like downright bad writing.
So, why? Why adapt this particular event specifically, if not to offer some kind of answer to the reasoning, the drive, the motivations of this killer? If so much was fictionalized, why not just write something entirely from scratch instead of relying on the lilting, stop-start narrative of the real world?
I don’t think Nitram is an exploitative film, exactly – it avoids showing any major violence on camera, which I appreciate – but it is one that I think relies on the cultural cache this crime has rather than trying to offer a genuine exploration of it over the course of these couple of hours. It doesn’t go far enough in either delving into Nitram’s personal motivations for his gun obsession, nor the broader cultural factors influencing them in general, and instead, lands at this strange middle ground of depicting these events without bothering to offer even its own answers on the complex factors leading to them. It’s a frustratingly disappointing and shallow look at this person and his crime, despite obviously noble intentions, that doesn’t take advantage of the leeway offered by the fictionalization of the case, and feels like a waste of the immense talent on display.
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By Lou MacGregor
(header image via Worldcelnews)
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