Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.
Justin Kurzel’s latest movie, ‘Nitram’, has proven controversial in his native Australia, which isn’t a huge surprise given it is a character study of a man who committed the worst mass murder in modern Australian history. Martin Bryant, played here by Caleb Landry Jones, was a deeply disturbed and troubled young man who went on a killing spree in Tasmania in the mid-90s, ultimately murdering 35 people primarily at a tourist attraction in Port Arthur. Kurzel has often been drawn to darker characters and unsavoury aspects of Australia’s history (‘Snowtown’, ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’) and this is a further foray into the circumstances that lead to such tragic events.
‘Nitram’ begins several years before the massacre and centres on Bryant’s life at home, where he lives with his parents. He’s a solitary individual with no friends or even acquaintances and he spends much of his time setting off fireworks to disturb the neighbours and impress local school kids. His parents treat him differently; his mother (Judy Davis) appears to have almost given up on him, whereas his father (Anthony LaPaglia) still holds out hope but is becoming increasingly exasperated. Whilst attempting to earn some money, he ends up befriending a rich, older woman (Essie Davis) who he eventually moves in with, developing an odd relationship that appears to exist in a chasm somewhere between friendship, sexual attraction and a mother/daughter bond. Foreshadowing is used to great effect to set the scene for the chilling events that follow.
Caleb Landry Jones, often a creepy presence in supporting roles, is outstanding in the leading role here. His performance captures the weird and offputting nature of Bryant that partially contributed to his isolation, but I also found that he managed to make you feel a degree of empathy for him, which makes me feel uncomfortable just typing it. It is a truly remarkable performance in a role that is challenging to say the least. Kurzel wisely leaves the killings off screen, centering his story more on how an individual with such violent tendencies was left unchecked to develop and act on his dark impulses. Events in Bryant’s life lead to him becoming increasingly isolated from others and a news report on the Dunblane massacre (I’m from the area so this hit especially hard) seems to be the final moment that tips him into procuring guns (with worrying ease) and committing the murders.
‘Nitram’ is a disturbing movie that attempts to get under the skin of what would drive an individual to commit such heinous acts, and this challenging material is handled with subtlety and care by director Justin Kurzel. I thought ‘Nitram’ was an excellent and thought provoking movie with one of the best performances of the year at its centre.
Directed By: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Sean Keenan and Anthony LaPaglia