A bleak yet well-crafted descent into the life of the disturbed young man who would become Australia’s most infamous mass killer.
How do you make a film about a real-world tragedy without exploiting, or worse, glamourizing the subject? This is the dilemma director Justin Kurzel faced when making Nitram, the 2021 bleak psychological drama based on the life of Australia’s biggest mass murderer.
The name Martin Bryant might not ring a bell for most international readers but for Australians, it’s been synonymous with massacre since the Tasmanian murdered thirty-five people with a semi-automatic rifle in 1996 – a crime so horrific that it prompted the introduction of the country’s famously strict gun ownership laws.
Bryant was also the inspiration and subject of Nitram. And as you might have guessed, it’s not a fun watch.
The film loosely relates the decade of Bryant’s life leading up to the infamous “Port Arthur Massacre”- though the event itself does not feature. Instead, we witness his slow unravelling – though as his mother hints in an early scene, he was never that together to begin with.
This period of Bryant’s life is depicted as being painful, turbulent, and above all, lonely. He has no friends, job prospects, or hobbies (other than an ominous obsession with fireworks), and lives with his parents who have all but given up on him.
But while the filmmakers don’t gloss over his suffering, there are also many scenes showing Bryant hurting those closest to him, from his long-suffering father to an elderly neighbour with whom he strikes up an unlikely and ultimately brief, friendship. Yes, Nitram acknowledges that Bryant had a hard life. But was this partly of his own doing?
The decision to set a story in the lead-up to such an inexplicable act makes every moment loaded. If for example, the filmmakers include a scene showing the protagonist being bullied, is the audience to conclude that this was the reason he snapped?
Kurzel sidesteps this problem by presenting certain facets of the real Bryant’s life with as little emphasis or suggestion as possible. Things happen, the character reacts, and we move on. This sense of remoteness makes for a difficult watch at times. But the scene in which Bryant practices shooting is nonetheless highly evocative.
Caleb Landry Jones’ (i.e. Bryant) blank face alone is enough to invoke instinctive dread. Jones’ unnervingly convincing depiction of Bryant, which saw him take home the Best Actor award at the Cannes International Film Festival, is just one of many excellent performances from Nitram’s cast.
Judy Davis, who plays Bryant’s sharp-tongued mother, is a particular standout. The celebrated Australian actress (Davis has won multiple BAFTAS, Golden Globes, and a SAG Award over her forty-plus year career) plays the role as neither a monster nor total martyr. She’s simply a mother whose child’s endless and unknowable needs far exceeded what she can provide.
Despite sweeping this year’s Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, Nitram opened to a decidedly mixed critical reception, with reviewers either loving or outright despising the film.
Nitram will inevitably be coloured by whether you think the film should exist in the first place. Those who opposed the production see the film as a vehicle to inflate Martin Bryant’s undeserved fame. But on the other hand, many of Nitram’s fans consider inherent value in films that tackle uncomfortable subjects.
Realistically, both of these perspectives are probably warranted when it comes to this controversial film.
The creators have clearly attempted to avoid glamourizing the crime (for example, the killer’s name is not spoken.) And though the film humanizes Bryant, it doesn’t encourage us to pity or excuse him, with the killer ultimately portrayed as unlikeable, strange, and pathetic.
On the other hand, this begs the question- why does such a person even warrant his own biopic? Kurzel has suggested in interviews that he believes Port Arthur should not be forgotten, or we could risk a reoccurrence. He even cites the shocking statistic that there are somehow more guns in Australia today than in 1996.
For better or for worse, the release of Nitram did succeed in reminding people of Port Arthur. But it doesn’t have a lot to say about the event itself, about Martin Bryant’s true nature, or about the gun control question at all. Unfortunately, the film’s understandable ambiguity regarding Bryant’s motives and reluctance to depict the horror of the actual crime somewhat blunt the impact of Nitram and the message it intended to convey.
In spite of this, the film does work on a number of levels. Well-crafted, tense, and psychologically draining, Nitram succeeds in a capturing a moment in time. It’s for the viewer to decide whether that’s a time worth revisiting.
Verdict - 9/10