Though “Nitram” never depicts the unspoken horrific massacre that its protagonist commits, the entire film queasily pulses in the anxious anticipation of the unspeakable event. It’s not an easy film to watch, knowing what’s coming but remaining completely powerless, not unlike watching a car crash in motion and being unable to stop it.
All the warning signs are there for Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones, in a truly chameleonic performance that has since taken the Best Actor prize at Cannes), whom the film never names directly. From the opening archival footage of the real Bryant in the Tasmanian hospital where he recovers from a firecracker incident, it’s clear that he doesn’t experience empathy or consequences in the same way as an average person. Wounded from his own erratic behavior, he’s perfectly content to repeat what he’s done, simply because he finds it fun. He’s a misfit who holds people at a distance, misunderstanding social cues and failing to fully register other people’s pain. He can’t, for example, fully connect with his parents, especially not his mother Carleen (Judy Davis), whose deep-seated pain at raising a son who’s hard to love manifests as a brisk unsentimentality. He also struggles to befriend his peers, who regard him with a mix of fear, mockery, and disgust and mark him with the unpleasant nickname that lends the film its title. It’s only when he meets Helen (Essie Davis), the eccentric heiress to a lottery fortune with a penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan, that he finally feels that he might have found a home—until the only semblance of real connection he has experienced gets unexpectedly ripped away from him, and once again, he’s left to his own, terrible devices.
In “Nitram,” director Justin Kurzel (“Macbeth,” “True History of the Kelly Gang“) probes a delicate subject matter. The story may resonate even more profoundly with American viewers, for whom mass shootings have become a tragically frequent fixture in news headlines and an endemic part of American culture. Unlike American legislation, which has been inconceivably slow to react to a mass epidemic of gun violence, the Australian government acted quickly and passed legislation to prohibit assault weapons mere days after the massacre. 25 years after the incident, the topic feels like a fresh wound for Australia, and no matter how artfully produced, “Nitram” still reproduces the raw pain of recent history.
It’s hard to say whether this is for better or worse, particularly when the film seems unsure of itself, too; you can sense it tiptoeing around several delicate fault lines. It can’t sensationalize the crime for entertainment value (and largely avoids doing so), but it also can’t understate the magnitude of its trauma. It resists overly humanizing its protagonist—sympathy for the perpetrator of violence on this scale would read as perverse fascination—but doing so goes against the basic rules of fictional filmmaking, a medium designed to incite empathy for its characters. It runs the risk of demonizing mental illness (a trap it partially falls into, with a discussion of antidepressants that feels rather perfunctory), but also can’t deny that mental illness and access to military-grade weapons has historically been a dangerous combination. It also does a mild act of careful erasure, obscuring Landry Jones’ face often in stringy, scraggly hair, never naming the character, and seemingly attempting to rob the killer of any extra fame, oxygen or attention in that regard.
Caught in the nexus of so many contradictory limitations, “Nitram” is a perplexing, though powerful character study of a person capable of doing extraordinary evil and feeling almost nothing. Moreover, it’s an indictment of a broken system whose laxities have facilitated and even encouraged the perpetuation of this very type of crime, all for the sake of capitalist gain (hi, America). Deftly made and phenomenally acted, “Nitram” isn’t a stumble—far from it, it’s an emotional sucker punch. But beyond a basic opposition to violence, it’s also not quite confident of its stance, surer of its aesthetics than of the exact shade of truth it tells.
When “Nitram” works, it owes its success to the strength of its performances. It’s astounding to learn that Caleb Landry Jones (whose other performances in “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and “Get Out” share tonal resonances) is a Texas native; he perfects not only the accent but also the physicality of the character, his ungainly slouch, and unsettlingly empty stare. Jones is a master of character work in both subdued scenes and intense ones; he evokes the erraticism of a ticking time bomb, ratcheting up Martin’s pent-up anger and letting it explode. He conveys the sense of Martin’s bizarre logic, even if Kurzel withholds full access to the character’s inner world; when Helen denies him a real gun, for instance, he replies in a chilling monotone, “But I want it, and you have the money.” Yet Jones also offers a real sense of his character chafing at the distance between himself and the wider world; it’s the closest the film comes to humanizing the character, though it shies away from shifting the blame entirely away from him. Davis, too, offers a complexly tragic portrait of a mother at a loss, hardened by years of trying to raise an intractable child. A less nuanced performance may have reduced Carleen to either a weepy mess or a portrait of callous indifference, but Davis masters the delicate balance of fear, love, anger, and sadness of a mother whose love can’t reach its recipient. In her final visit to her son before the massacre, she shoots a long, anxious look up the stairwell, as if divining the future and wishing for the power to change it—but ultimately, she’s just as powerless as the rest of us.
What, exactly, is the point of “Nitram”? It’s partially a cautionary tale, partially an entreaty to strengthen gun ownership policy. It’s also undeniably a portrait of a troubled young man whose inability to fit into the status quo proves tragic. Though the portrait is neither affectionate nor flattering, it requires some degree of sympathy, even if that sympathy is very slight or takes the form of pity. There’s no doubt that “Nitram” is a powerful display of filmmaking. But the question remains: Whom is it for? [B]