Now in Cinemas

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You have every right and reason not to go see Justin Kurzel’s new film Nitram, despite its impeccable craftsmanship and staggeringly effective performances. It chronicles events leading up to the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it’s as bleak and depressing as cinema gets. Stay away, by all means. This is not for everybody.

Is it for anybody? And by that, what I really mean is, does it have a reason to exist? About halfway through I wasn’t so sure; by the end I was, absolutely. For Nitram is a thorough, methodical, detailed, unsensational and sincere examination of mental illness; it is also a quietly powerful anti-gun plea for common sense.

The film makes the effective case for the shooter’s mental health leading directly to his actions, and along the way reminds us that, often, warning signs of serious trouble are evident. It is not so much that it’s sympathetic to the shooter; rather, it tries to wrestle with how things like this could happen: not because of ‘evil’, but when certain very disturbed people get their hands on guns. Without blaming society, or any one person in particular, the film couldn’t be clearer that mentally ill people need help, and we shouldn’t have guns circulating in society. Both concepts sound self-evident, obvious, but the film delivers the message with great impact and fresh clarity.

Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor at Cannes for his lead role, and it is truly an astonishing performance, the best I’ve seen this year. We have come far in the depiction of mental illness on film, and this surely sets the new benchmark. Everything he does rings true. He is supported by equally precise naturalistic performances from Judy Davis (as his mother), Anthony LaPaglia (his father) and particularly Essie Davis as Helen, a woman with whom he develops an unusual and impactful relationship.

This is clearly similar territory for Kurzel to Snowtown (2011), his terrifying examination of the events leading up to the Adelaide serial killings. There are great tonal and aesthetic similarities, and a similarly bleak sense of existential despair, but there are also crucial differences. Snowtown featured graphic scenes of horrific violence and essentially operated as a horror film, albeit one of impeccable integrity and craftsmanship. Nitram has no onscreen violence and operates as a cautionary, sad drama. They are easily Kurzel’s two best films, and Nitram is one of the best films of the year, but one I can only recommend with reservations. Put it this way: if you think it’s not for you, you’re probably right.

One thought on “Nitram

  1. If you go to this film hoping to gain greater understanding of Martin Bryant and the events leading up to the Port Arthur massacre, you will be disappointed. That is because the audience does not know what is fact and what is fiction. While the film goes to some effort to get some things accurate, other facts are simply left out. So while Caleb Laundry Jones looks and dresses like Bryant and drives a yellow Volvo with a surfboard on top just like his – strangely, in the film Bryant has no younger sister. And he was not as friendless as the movie suggests. The book Born or Bred [Wainwright and Totaro] makes many references to ‘Petra’ who spent a lot of time with Bryant right up to the massacre. It seems that any facts which complicated the story were left out.

    The casting was all wrong. It seems the film makers preferred to hire big name actors over people who would actually be good in the roles. Judy Davis does not seem the type of woman to have MB as a son. Her face is far too intelligent, her voice is far too commanding, her manner far too considered to play MB’s mother. And why did his father have a beard? Maybe Anthony LaPaglia refused to shave it off? And Essie Davis was too young to play Helen Harvey.

    And the story loses impact because it was not shot in Tasmania. Geelong does not look much like Hobart.

    So, overall this film is probably excellent in itself and for a foreign audience. But for an Australian audience trying to get closer to the truth it is quite unsatisfying.

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