Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.
Editing: Nick Fenton
Music: Jed Kurzel
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Judy Davis, Sean Keenan
Directors: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Shaun Grant
Cinematography: Germain McMicking
I don’t think I’ve seen a film get as much “should this even be made?” discussion about it in years than Nitram. The film depicts the years leading up to the terrible events in 1996 in which thirty-five people were murdered and twenty-three others injured in Australia’s largest mass shooting. In the year and change since the film’s announcement, I’ve read countless articles arguing either for or against the film. Living in Tasmania, being born in Tasmania, the local papers and politicians have had plenty to say about Nitram being produced or shown here. It’s understandably a movie that’ll open old wounds for many.
When the Port Arthur massacre occurred in 1996, I was not even four years old. When my family took me to visit Port Arthur, it would have been five years later, and although the focus was on the site’s convict era history, I knew what had happened there, and I knew not to mention it in public.
Tasmanians took to not mentioning the killer’s name, and over the years, he’s been pushed to a dark corner of the state’s history. Many arguments against the film were because it’ll give him stardom or it may glorify his actions. Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant never mention the killer’s name, and instead, he’s only ever called Nitram on screen, an apparent nickname the killer hated.
Caleb Landry Jones portrays Nitram in a physical and intense performance. His eyes and stance do more talking than anything else. Although he never openly discusses what’s going through his mind, it’s evident that Nitram is a man who is struggling with high levels of anxiety every day.
The film does open with real-life television footage of the young killer after being hospitalised after playing with fireworks. When the interviewer asks if he’s learnt his lesson and if he’ll do it again, he says, of course, no, he hasn’t learnt his lesson. Later in the film, Nitram’s mother, played by Judy Davis — in one of her best screen performances — tells a story of how Nitram hid from her for an entire afternoon, never coming out even amongst her screams and fears she’d lost her child. However, he finally showed himself laughing in her face, finding her pain to be the most hilarious thing he’d seen that afternoon. The mother is stern on Nitram, but on the opposite end of things is Nitram’s father, portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia as a soft push-over. There is a scene early in the film when the mother asks Nitram to change out of his dirty clothes only for the father to tell her to let him be, but Nitram does change down to his underwear before sitting back at the table like a child who’d just got the final word.
In a weird coincidence, Nitram, one day, knocks on the door of Helen Harvey, portrayed by Essie Davis in a nearly unrecognisable performance. Initially offering to mow her lawn for some money, Nitram ends up striking up a weird relationship with the middle-aged woman, who also happens to keep a small fortune, something Nitram isn’t aware of initially. The chemistry between Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis is sensational. Although you may not understand how or why these two found one another, there’s an unequivocal and undeniable bond between the two.
Helen’s friendship builds with Nitram until he moves into her unkempt home that seems to home ten or more dogs. The film portrays Helen as lonely and seeking human connection, something that Nitram too is after.
It’s when Nitram loses this relationship, however, that his mind begins searching for a new connection and, unable to find it in people, he seeps further into a fantasy land that leads him to the events of that morning in Port Arthur.
I didn’t feel sorry for Nitram as I watched the film because I know who that character is, and I have no sympathy for that man in my entire being. I also don’t feel like the film is trying to make you sympathise heavily with him; it’s simply presenting the events that lead up to that day. In some ways, it’s choosing not to say anything in particular about the killer that you probably don’t already know. There’s plenty of opportunities to point the finger at scenes other films may have glorified as ‘the moments’ that made him want to kill. The girl who wouldn’t talk to him on the beach, the surfer who would only make fun of him, his weak-willed father, the loss of his best friend, and the list goes on.
The film is an anti-gun message, however, and there’s no ignoring that fact. Nitram is not a man who should be allowed to purchase weapons legally; that much is obvious, and I don’t think even the most pro-gun enthusiasts could argue that fact. Yet Nitram does walk into a gun store, purchase several guns and ammunition, and walk out the other side. The film’s postscript notes that more people are buying guns, albeit legally, in Australia now than in 1996. The message reads as a warning that we shouldn’t let things creep back to the way they were, and remembering tragic and horrific events like that of Port Arthur are reminders as to why something like national gun control and more rigid rules is necessary. In many ways, the gun control message does feel more poignant to America than that of Australia.
Justin Kurzel chooses not to show the horrific shooting at Port Arthur in the film, even if the movie goes right up until the seconds before. It’s interesting because I was happy not to have to watch it. The final act of Nitram is so anxiety-inducing that I could feel the frown and disgust on my face as I stared at the screen, knowing the last day was approaching. However, I can’t help but wonder if showing the shooting in some fashion may have elevated the film for an international audience. Will the U.S understand what this atrocious man’s actions did? The full ramifications of the events that forever changed Australian history? It’s hard to say for sure.
You can tell Kurzel and Grant have tried their hardest to respect the victims and their families here while still wanting to make the movie they set out to make. There’s no escaping the gruelling gut-sinking two hours that you’ll be in for, but it’s well worth watching. The performances are some of 2021’s best; the sound design is top-notch, and outside of The True History of the Kelly Gang, this is Justin Kurzel’s most focused work. Nitram leaves you with plenty to talk about, and most of it won’t be the man himself. It’ll be about mental health, family support, lower-class support systems, and gun reform.