Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Jones has been turning in consistently good work for years now and it’s high time he had a role like this. The art of it lies in how he keeps us alert to his character’s dangerous potential without ever letting us lose sight of his humanity." | Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival/Picturehouse Entertainment

Everything looks different in hindsight. Towards the end of this film, the camera lingers on a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) eating a fruit cup. It’s a simple act but the lighting and pacing intersect with viewers’ foreknowledge to make it almost unbearable to watch. As each spoonful of fruit pieces is consumed, the lives of the people laughing and talking and moving around in the small seaside café and its environs creep towards their end.

Nitram won a slew of prizes at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor. It’s still controversial in Tasmania, site of the Port Arthur massacre on which it is based. 35 people died that Sunday in 1996 as Martin Bryant toured the area, shooting into crowds and targeting individuals at random. The names here have (mostly) been changed but enough is recognisable that one can understand why some people feel unable to watch it, and why others might object to its characterisation of the perpetrator as a potentially sympathetic person shaped in part by social exclusion.

When the film opens, the Bryant character, Nitram, is living with his parents, and it is through their reactions that we are invited to interpret his behaviour. We see him antagonising his neighbours by setting off fireworks and upsetting a local teacher by providing firecrackers to children. The kids love this, of course, and crowd around and cheer, which allows him to believe that they’re his friends. Nobody his own age is interested in being friends with him. This is one of the things which worries his parents (the excellent Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia). His mother tries to fix the problem by pressuring him to conform, which he experiences as rejection. His father tries to reassure him and encourage him to find his own ways of being happy. If the family could buy a bed and breakfast place and run it together, he thinks, his son could be more productively occupied and they could all be happy. When the dream falls through, it will have devastating consequences for all of them.

The bed and breakfast story is taken directly from real life; likewise the friendship which Nitram develops with lonely local woman Helen (Essie Davis), a former actress who seems to have mental health issues which make it easy for her to get along with the intellectually disabled youth. Their dynamic is a complicated one: she clearly has a crush on him, which worries his mother, but her meek nature and his tendency to take everything at face value means it isn’t going anywhere. For a while it seems as if he might have found a life that works for him, but ultimately his volatility will put that too in jeopardy, propelling him into crisis just as he acquires the means to make himself more dangerous.

Jones has been turning in consistently good work for years now and it’s high time he had a role like this. The art of it lies in how he keeps us alert to his character’s dangerous potential without ever letting us lose sight of his humanity. There are any number of moments in the film when Nitram looks as if he might step over the edge and do something violent, and a tale told by his mother illustrates his capacity for premeditated cruelty, yet for the most part he seems kind and affectionate towards those who are kind to him.

It’s an important performance not just in how it interprets this individual character, and by extension Bryant, but because of the way it invites understanding of this type of learning disorder more generally, encouraging viewers to connect with somebody who is as complex as they are, just lacking certain specific abilities which the average person possesses. It’s easy to see why some people write Nitram off as stupid, but pleasing to see him still presented as human, given cinema’s long history of contributing to the marginalisation of such people.

Much of the magic here lies in the performances, but credit should also go to cinematographer Germain McMicking, who brings Port Arthur and its surroundings to life and gives it a strong presence in the film. The locations are very well chosen and the film is stronger overall because director Justin Kurzel doesn’t go overboard in trying to keep tension building all the way through. Instead it ebbs and flows in a way which feels natural and keeps viewers open to possibility, aware of all the different ways the story might have gone. Without excusing Nitram or suggesting easy solutions, it positions the horrors of that late April day as the product of multiple factors colliding to tragic effect.

One of the last such factors to emerge is news footage of another massacre – rather closer to home for viewers who caught this at the Glasgow Film Festival - which Nitram happens to watch just before he makes his fateful decision. Now languishing in prison, Bryant has been denied the opportunity to access news coverage of his own crime. Kurzel knows when to bring his narrative to a stop. There’s a suggestion that the kind of wall to wall news coverage often given to mass murderers puts the wrong sort of ideas into the heads of people at risk of making such decisions themselves. Perhaps, in presenting killers differently, shorn of any real sense of power or glamour, cinema can help to tip the balance in the other direction.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2022
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Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania are explored in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writer: Shaun Grant

Starring: Essie Davis, Caleb Landry Jones, Anthony LaPaglia, Judy Davis

Year: 2021

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: Australia

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