Scrupulously avoiding exploitation, Justin Kurzel’s Nitram allows space for the aspects of violence that escape comprehension. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Nitram, directed by Justin Kurzel, is a film based on the life of the man who committed the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, Australia’s most infamous mass shooting. The event galvanised anger against the leniency of gun ownership laws in this country and led to the National Firearms Agreement that curtailed the access of individuals to weapons. It also created uniform firearms licensing across the federation.
It’s fair to say that for many of us the Port Arthur massacre remains indelibly marked in our consciousness. One of its most terrifying aspects was the incongruity between the withdrawn, somewhat gormless, persona of the perpetrator that we espied on the television news and the calamitous evil that he enacted. As with similar atrocities, whether in Dunblane, Scotland, or a few years later in Columbine, in the United States, the horror they unleashed defies neat sociological, psychological or political categorisation.
In filmic terms, possibly the most chillingly accurate representation of our ineffable incomprehension of these crimes is the moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007) when the two psychopathic villains taunt their victims with a litany of deliberately contradictory reasons for their actions. The knowledge that aspects of violence will always defy rational explanation accentuates both our horror and our outrage.
Kurzel’s film announces part of its intentions in its title, where the killer’s first name is reversed. The reckoning here is that there will be a conscious attempt not to glorify the perpetrator. The reversed name can’t help but also suggest the frightened young clairvoyant boy in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), whose increasingly agitated pronouncing and then screaming of the word “Redrum, redrum, redrum!” is one of the iconic moments of screen horror. The terrifying supernatural possessions in that film also take place on a site of past colonial atrocity.
Nitram begins with granulated footage of an old television interview with a young boy who has been badly scarred by fireworks. This seemingly happy, animated child is the titular character, and we will discover that Nitram was the cruel nickname he was saddled with from school. The monsters in Nitram do not belong to the paranormal.
One of the astonishing wonders of Nitram is that Kurzel manages to honour the imperative not to exploit the tragedy while keeping that humanising memory of the excitable child alive for the duration of the film. The screenplay is by Shaun Grant, who has collaborated with Kurzel before, on Snowtown (2011) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2019).
As with the first film, Kurzel deploys an almost clinically detached camera to observe Nitram and to situate him within a starkly unadorned suburban milieu. Decidedly awkward and often ungracious, Nitram finds very few opportunities for understanding in the drab environs in which he lives. The thoughtful script makes the relationship between the young man and his loving but clearly anxious parents the core of the film.
This emphatic understanding is further augmented when Nitram begins a tentative friendship with Helen, a fellow eccentric whose idiosyncrasies are tolerated because she is rich. Unlike most of his encounters, she treats him with simple dignity. Yet Helen’s wealth inadvertently leads to the tragic events that culminate at Port Arthur. When she dies in a car accident, she leaves him a small fortune. Wandering her dilapidated mansion, using her money to fly first-class overseas only to find he is ignored or mistrusted everywhere he goes, listlessly listening to reports of the Dunblane massacre, Nitram starts to nurture the terrifying dreams that he will unleash on the world. Helen’s money allows him to stockpile an armoury.
Underscoring how crucial the actors are to the success of this film by no means undermines Kurzel’s and Grant’s talents. The actors are responding to the subtle precision of the direction and screenplay. The cast is magnificent, with Caleb Landry Jones playing Nitram, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia as his parents and Essie Davis as Helen. Each performance is beautifully judged, with the actors maintaining an unerring discipline. There is no exaggeration in any of their work and no attempt to be “likeable”. The result is that our sympathy, when elicited, is powerful.
Kurzel is clearly fascinated by violence and by its legacies. Snowtown was praised for being a detached, almost clinically forensic, examination of horror, but I didn’t believe a moment of that film. The humanist impulses of the filmmakers were at odds with the story they wanted to tell. Their urge to find a comprehensible reason for heinous behaviour is precisely what Haneke mocked so mercilessly in that pivotal moment in Funny Games. It was as if Kurzel was drawn to the violence but was too decent himself to countenance mere venality as a motive. There was an equivalent misjudgement in Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth, where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s lust for power was completely ignored. The result was possibly the most passive adaptation of Shakespeare I have ever seen.
I think True History of the Kelly Gang is a bridging work between those earlier films and Kurzel’s splendid direction in Nitram. Many scenes in the Kelly film go on too long and are sometimes near incomprehensible, and the meshing of realist Western tropes with punk theatre doesn’t always come off. But he was inside the characters of that film, and he and Grant could clearly sympathise with the Kelly gang’s hatred of the long, ugly history of British oppression of the Irish. Though not completely successful, that film benefited from not needing everything to be explained or comprehended, and at its core was the quixotic, violent hatred of Kelly’s mother, played by Essie Davis, whose animus was the spur for the gang’s mayhem. For the first time in his work, it felt as if Kurzel was allowing a space for paradox in the conception of his characters.
This understanding of nuance and contradiction has even greater focus in Nitram. The camera observes the title character and we sit with the complex array of emotions that emerge from watching Landry Jones’s courageous immersion in the role. Throughout the film, as different people treat him with apprehension and disdain, aggression and provocation, we never find ourselves feeling superior to those antagonistic to him. In the writing and performance, the film deliberately counters the romantic trope of the holy fool, the childlike adult as a figure of innocence and grace. We have to confront the truth that danger and destructiveness are integral to such narcissistic personalities.
Kurzel’s fundamental decency and humanism – those traits that couldn’t be satisfactorily reconciled in Snowtown and Macbeth – are evident in his scrupulously tender work with Essie Davis, Judy Davis and LaPaglia. The tragedy of the massacre is irrefutable. The gift of this film is it doesn’t disregard their individual pain and hurt.
Nitram isn’t seamless. The Dunblane shooting is clumsily introduced. And I think the scolding, pious titles at the end of the film are a mistake and undermine the powerful final image of the film. I wanted to sit in silence with the profundity of the tragedy at Port Arthur and I felt instead as if I was being told what to think and what to feel.
The domestic and suburban world of Nitram is cramped and claustrophobic, even though it takes place in the luscious Tasmanian landscape. The film is punctuated with breathtaking aerial views of Port Arthur, where the screen explodes in colour and light. The disturbing, unfathomable contradiction at the heart of that settlement is that a place of such beauty can be the site of racist colonial oppression, of the suffering of one of the vilest prison camps in our history, and also the site of our worst mass shooting.
Without a doubt, Nitram is a mature work. The filmmakers understand that there remains an element of incomprehension whenever we confront evil. Yet Kurzel, Grant and their collaborators persuade us that this doesn’t mean the foreclosing of compassion.
There isn’t a trace of exploitation in this film. More than anything else, it is a work of sorrow.
Nitram is in cinemas where they are open, and will be available on Stan later this year.
FESTIVAL The Unconformity
Venues around Queenstown, Tasmania, October 15-17
THEATRE The Sorcerer
Dolphin Theatre, Perth, October 14–23
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, from October 14
THEATRE A Midnight Visit
House of Usher, Brisbane, until October 21
PUPPETRY Never Grow Old: 40 Years of Terrapin
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until October 31
VISUAL ART World Upside Down
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until October 10
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Depths of sorrow".
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