Nitram is the worst sort of armchair investigation — one that reopens wounds it doesn’t bother to heal.
The True History of the Kelly Gang was something of a homecoming for Justin Kurzel after his Hollywood adventure curdled with Assassin’s Creed. With his latest, Nitram, he returns to the more specific roots of his debut Snowtown, making another dubious exploration into real-life Australian tragedy. This time it’s the 1996 Port Arthur massacre which took the lives of 35 people and led to Australia enacting stricter gun laws with speed unthinkable to an American. Caleb Landry Jones gives a histrionic performance as the shooter, Martin Bryant, but you won’t hear that name in the film. Nitram takes its title from a childhood name flung at Martin, a backwards spelling of his name to suggest, well, that he’s a backwards person. Nitram is the only name used for him in the film and even the requisite docudrama text at the movie’s end refers to him only as “a lone gunman.” It’s a purposeful absence, perhaps an attempt to neuter Bryant’s reported desire for infamy by leaving his name out. If that’s the case, it’s a limp-dicked thought experiment, a film interested only in the personal, shallowly seeking to get inside the head of a killer.
Thus Nitram follows the troubled boy through the years leading up to the massacre. His mother (Judy Davis) makes few allowances for her son’s mental illness, likely because she suspects the evil he’s capable of. He’s closer with his father (Anthony LaPaglia), a man who wants to buy a bed and breakfast to run with his son. Years pass and dominos fall, tearing what little human connection Martin has — like wealthy friend Helen (Essie Davis) — away from him. Aside from a few scenes displaying just how lax Australian gun laws were in the ’90s, Kurzel offers nothing in the way of institutional critique; he follows his curiosity only to a baseline understanding of mental illness and interpersonal relationships. Whatever the intent of following this murderer, the resulting film lands somewhere between gawking at the man and humanizing him, banging its head against pathology in a hollow search for answers that are not there. Nothing especially enlightening is gained from watching Caleb Landry Jones play-act the deteriorating mental state of a mass murderer. There’s nothing in Nitram that can’t be gleaned from reading the killer’s Wikipedia page. The difference is Wikipedia actually bothers to list the names of his victims.
This, really, is what rankles most about Nitram. It’s beside the point to remark that Kurzel still seems a solid filmmaker or that the film’s two Davises, Essie and Judy, are especially compelling screen presences who steal the whole film with one conversation. The worst true-crime media often ignores the lives and even names of victims in favor of telling the stories of murderers to dubious ends. Kurzel strips the killer of his name and does the same to his victims, pulling real tragedy to the point of abstraction and turning Nitram into the worst sort of armchair investigation: one that myopically seeks to understand the incomprehensible, reopening wounds it doesn’t bother to heal.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.