REVIEW: Nitram [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 112 minutes
    Release Date: September 30th, 2021 (Australia) / March 30th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Madman Entertainment / IFC Films / AMC+
    Director(s): Justin Kurzel
    Writer(s): Shaun Grant

Mom told me to do something.

An interesting and completely understandable ask was presented before being granted access to watch director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant‘s latest collaboration Nitram: please don’t mention the name of the perpetrator of the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania. It was understandable because tragedies such as these become so easily sensationalized by the media in ways that glorify the murderer while forgetting about the victims when we should be memorializing the latter and ignoring the former. It was interesting because this is a film about said perpetrator regardless of its fictionalization, so doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Reductively speaking, maybe. After watching, however, you can see that Grant and Kurzel recognize they’re walking a very slippery slope that demands this controversial point-of-view to achieve their goal.

This is a message movie. Grant proclaims it an “anti-gun” movie. Focusing upon the life of the killer doesn’t therefore demand its audience sympathize with him. Grant and Kurzel instead do everything in their power to make certain we know this young man is extremely unstable from the get-go. Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) is the type of person no one will have to rack their brains to believe what he does. He’s a troubled soul with psychological issues that is prone to fits of rage as well as hysterics depending on his mood and his relationship to the scenarios in which he finds himself. Mum (Judy Davis) and Dad (Anthony LaPaglia) try to mitigate the fallout of these episodes, but the town pariahs can only do so much.

They’re ultimately part of the problem. After years of being worn down by his antics, Mum has grown apathetic while Dad has embraced defeat. She pushes Nitram to the cliff’s edge, almost daring him to finally jump and take the responsibility of having to keep worrying about him out of her hands. He coddles their son, positioning himself as Nitram’s “friend” in a bid to ease his struggles and cultivate trust via camaraderie. Sometimes Mum’s “bad cop” keeps the boy in check. Sometimes Dad’s “good cop” defuses the perpetual powder-keg. Any relief, however, is short-lived since they cannot keep him on a leash in the backyard. He’s an adult. He needs to keep busy (disability provides a pension check). And when Nitram wants something, he won’t let go.

At present that something is a surfboard. Whereas Mum might have just paid the money in the past to give it to him so the distraction would finally stop him from setting off firecrackers and waking the neighborhood, she’s learned that giving in often causes more problems in the long run. Desperate to be “cool” and attractive like a local around his age (Sean Keenan‘s Jamie), Nitram’s fascination with surfing won’t evaporate. He decides to take the family lawnmower around, knocking on doors in the hopes of making extra money. It isn’t until he stumbles upon the large house of a rich eccentric (Essie Davis‘ Helen) that someone actually accepts his pitch. A powerful kinship is formed despite their age difference—two lost souls craving to be seen.

More disfunction. More blind compliance. Nitram’s lies amplify. His impatience and appetites intensify. His demand to break free of the boredom of his life becomes immovable. And what can any of the people in his life do to stop it short of having him committed? Dad and Helen wouldn’t dream of something like that because they see a sensitivity beneath the callous cruelty. Mum might if not for the shame of failure forcing her to confront her own inadequacies (she merely keeps his medication prescription filled and dismissively smiles at the psychiatrist upon his recommendation that she also seek therapy). So, they push the problem down the road. They put their feet down and believe his inevitable apologies are admissions of defeat. They never are, though.

As such, we can’t sympathize. Is Nitram’s life tragic? Sure. But nothing on-screen tells us he could or would change if something different occurred. You could maybe say at the beginning that he just needs understanding, but finding it from Helen only ends up exacerbating the underlying problems rather than quell them. Nitram forever wants more and that inability to be satisfied means the only option to prevent what’s coming is to physically stop him. How many times must their appeals to his better nature fail before someone escalates their tactics? How much abuse will the people appealing to him endure before they allow themselves to be put in a position where they get hurt? Nitram has three human barriers preventing complete destruction. One by one they fall.

And that’s where the message enters. Because there should be a fourth barrier. The state itself should have safeguards in place once everyone else disappears. Someone like Nitram shouldn’t be able to let his sadness, temper, and tedium drive him to a gun store and leave with semi-automatic rifles. It’s a flippant and manipulative line of dialogue, but hearing a salesman tell him he’s lucky he didn’t ask for a handgun because then he would have been sent away is damning in its insane truth, nonetheless. Everything that happens carries a similar layer of impossibility because Nitram is constantly given the benefit of the doubt where it comes to aggression, manslaughter, inheritance, and curiosity. He’s given everything. Society willingly and enthusiastically invites him to open fire.

So, no. Nitram isn’t exploitation. It’s not turning the camera onto a monster to humanize him. On the contrary, its vantage point turns the camera onto us instead. Because this is the cost of so-called freedom. Thirty-five dead and twenty-three injured is the cost of ignoring that the right to bear arms as stated for Protestants in England circa 1689 (and subsequently its Commonwealths like Australia) shouldn’t blanketly apply to the use of twenty-first century military-grade weaponry for “hunting” purposes. Because it’s not about one man. It’s not about Nitram (Jones is fantastic in the role as an ever-unraveling broken soul). It’s about our unwavering complicity and subsequent delusion that nothing can be done. It’s about the thousands who’ve died since in lands marred by England’s colonialist reach.

[1] Caleb Landry Jones as “Nitram” in Justin Kurzel’s NITRAM. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[2] Caleb Landry Jones as “Nitram,” Judy Davis as “Mum,” and Anthony LaPaglia as “Dad” in Justin Kurzel’s NITRAM. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[3] Essie Davis as “Helen” in Justin Kurzel’s NITRAM. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

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