It is uncommon to find a film that can hold multiple high-tension lines taut from beginning to end. The viscerally disturbing Nitram (2021) is three films in one: a portrait of evil, a case study in mental illness, and a depiction of banal indifference to the ownership of lethal weapons. This is as far from entertainment as film gets, but like the Holocaust and other dark chapters of history, it’s a story that must be told.
Australia’s worst mass murderer is not named in the film but we quickly learn that Nitram is his first name spelt backwards. It was a schoolyard taunt that captured what everyone thought of the emotionally stunted Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones). Son of Carleen (Judy Davis) and Maurice (Anthony Paglia), he had no friends and was a constant worry to parents, teachers and neighbours. Given his erratic violence and sadism, it is unfathomable that his father gave him an air-rifle on his 14th birthday thus igniting a passion for destroying things from afar.
By adulthood he was unemployable and shunned by all who knew him. He earned small change by mowing lawns, and this led him into a bizarre relationship with middle-age heiress and eccentric recluse, Helen Harvey (Essie Davis). They spent their days spending her money in the most ostentatious ways possible, largely distracting Martin from his volcanic urges to do harm; that is, until he causes Helen’s death and his father commits suicide.
More isolated from reality than ever, Martin accumulated an arsenal of military-grade assault weapons. In what could be the most chilling scene of the film, we see a gun-shop owner determined to sell him the most powerful weapons available so he could get his hands into Martin’s duffle-bag crammed with cash. With both buyer and seller devoid of moral thought, it became a perfect storm that forever changed Tasmania’s Port Arthur and cost 35 innocent lives, multiple injuries, and the scarring of a national psyche.
Not all agree that this film should have been made and the trauma it depicts will remain for generations. Regardless of the surrounding controversy, this film is a skilfully produced and powerfully acted psychological drama. All acting principals put in towering performances and present a forensic deconstruction of the roles they play. An unstable and uncontrollable outcast with painfully unloving parents in a society that condoned the indiscriminate sale of lethal weapons, is a tragedy in waiting. The film’s postscript informs us that now, 25 years later, there are more such weapons circulating in Australia than before the Port Arthur massacre.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony Paglia, Essie Davis