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Review: Nitram

April 1, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Director Justin Kurzel’s film Nitram follows in the footsteps of Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Gus van Sant’s Elephant (a fictionalized take on Columbine), as a film that dramatizes a real life mass shooting.

In the case of Kurzel’s film, it dramatizes the events surrounding the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in 1996, which prompted Australia to completely overhaul its gun laws, and mainly serves as a slow-burn character study of the perpetrator, Martin Bryant.

Caleb Landry Jones, who won the Best Actor prize last year at Cannes for the role, delivers a chilling performance in the film as a stand-in for Bryant. The title of the film is Martin backwards, a cruel nickname that kids at school used to call him, and the only way the shooter is referred to onscreen.

Nitram is a young man struggling with mental illness and limited intellect who lives with his parents in suburban Australia. While his mother (Judy Davis) tries to set some ground rules, his father (Anthony LaPaglia) lets him walk all over him and largely excuses his son’s anti-social behaviour, including waking up the neighbours by repeatedly setting off firecrackers, and giving them to the local school boys that he hangs around with.

When his mother refuses to give him money to buy a surfboard so he can hang out with the locals at the beach, even though he doesn’t surf, Nitram starts bringing his lawnmower door-to-door, trying to start a lawn mowing business to earn cash. This is how he meets Helen (Essie Davis), a rich, eccentric heiress living alone in a decrepit mansion with multiple dogs and cats. She starts buying him things, including his own car, and he eventually moves in with her. But the one thing she refuses to buy him is a gun.

Nitram is prone to violent outbursts when he doesn’t get his own way, and thinks it is funny to grab the steering wheel when Helen is driving. The film largely functions as a character study of this disturbed young man, and what led him to viciously kill 35 people in cold blood and injure 23 others at a tourist spot. Inspired by the Dunblane massacre, which occurred in Scotland a month before his attack, Nitram starts obsessively collecting guns, having become bored with his air rifle. In a chilling sequence, the film shows how disturbingly easy it was for him to obtain various assault rifles with cash and no license.

There is always some question of why a film like this needs to exist, what purpose it serves, and if it is meant to make us sympathize with the perpetrator of a heinous, real life crime. I particularly struggle with that last question in regards to Nitram. Whether this is Kurzel’s intention or not, there is always the fear that some viewers will take Nitram on as a sympathetic portrait of a bullied, misunderstood young man with various neurological differences who is struggling to fit in, before he inevitably snaps.

Though, to his credit, Kurzel doesn’t try to make Nitram a likeable character. He is volatile and often repulsive to those around him, a collection of red flags and warning signs that add up to a ticking time bomb (according to the Wikipedia page for the real life Bryant, he used to torture animals as a kid and would shoot his air rifle at neighbours, things that are pretty much left out of the film). Kurzel does a good job of making us feel helpless and queasy as we wait for him to explode, keeping the massacre tactfully offscreen when it finally does happen. But the sickening tension and dread we feel up until the last possible second is still palpable.

I do have some mixed feelings about the film’s very existence, and how it could serve to re-traumatize survivors and family members of the victims, and it is a very uncomfortable viewing experience. But it’s also hard to deny the effectiveness of Jones’s deeply unsettling and eerily believable performance, and Kurzel’s artfully crafted film casts a highly disturbing spell that continues to linger afterwards.

Nitram is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto, and will be expanding to other cities in the coming weeks. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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