Nitram is a tough sell: a film about the Port Arthur shooting in 1996 – 35 dead, 23 wounded at the hand of a lone gunman called Martin Bryant – it was controversial in Australia, where the shooting occurred, and unsurprisingly several politicians were particularly vocal in campaigning against it.
The fact that Australian’s gun laws were changed in the aftermath of the shooting might suggest culpable hostility on the part of politicians who had clearly been asleep on the job if a man with restricted intelligence, with a history of reckless behaviour and with no firearms licence could easily buy enough weapons to supply a small army.
It’s a tough sell, though, not because it’s about watching a disturbed man warming up for the slaughter of innocents but because we’ve all seen this sort of thing before – excluded loner gets gun, goes crazy.
Writer Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel famously broke through with the remarkable Snowtown and are back, to an extent, on the same ground – Australian suburban murder. Snowtown had sodomy, animal body parts and obvious good and bad guys to add a certain melodramatic glamour to its story. Nitram is a much more subtle affair, a hunt for a bad guy where it’s possible that no bad guy actually exists.
At the centre of it all is Caleb Landry Jones as Nitram (it’s “Martin” backwards), a mentally challenged man who lives with his parents – the too-cool mother (Judy Davis) and the too-emotional father (Anthony LaPaglia), a couple who are both getting on a bit and have over the years been ground down by their son’s hyperactive shenanigans.
Things seem to swing in Nitram’s way (he hates the fact everyone calls him that, but we never hear him called anything else, tellingly) when he befriends a rich eccentric dog lady (Essie Davis), who buys him a car and moves him into her house, where he becomes half son, half lover.
It seems obvious that this is just a respite on a journey towards something unpleasant because the nervy, restless camera of Kurzel and cinematographer Germain McMicking has painted Nitram as trouble from the off – he’s picked out on his own on the beach while surfers bobbing about in the sea laugh and banter together.
In an early scene at the doctor’s, the doctor asks if Mum’s request for a renewal of her son’s medication is to make his life easier or hers. The finger of blame momentarily points at her, before moving on to the father, then back to Nitram, who maybe was just born bad, before momentarily alighting on dog-lady Helen, who should perhaps know what she’s dealing with, and eventually the guy at the gun store, who is ironically the only person who actually treats Nitram as a regular guy, which is all he ultimately wants.
Blame shifting comes in the performances, too – Caleb Landry Jones has garnered accolades for his snot-and-screaming performance but he’s actually more impressive in the quieter moments when, with a flick of an eye, he can suggest whether Nitram is on or off the meds.
Davis and LaPaglia can do no wrong in my book and with the poker-faces of seasoned experts flick us this way and that in our assessment of Nitram’s parents – good ones or bad ones, the verdict varying from second to second.
Death, thankfully, is kept off the screen. Nitram’s first shooting we watch as he walks up to the front door of a house. The door opens, he goes in and there are a series of bangs. With the second shooting, the main event, Nitram is glimpsed as if from the back seat of his car as he sets off jauntily with a big holdall over his shoulder. This is a “just sorting out a bit of business, won’t be a tick” shot, icy in its irony.
Mechanically, in terms of production skills, technique, storytelling etc, it’s hard to fault Nitram. The big question remains: how much do you want to watch a serial killer warming up for the main event? And if there’s no real insight into how and why he acted the way he did – apart from the fatal concatenation of a series of everyday events – what’s the point?
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© Steve Morrissey 2022