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Directed by Justin Kurzel
Written by Shaun Grant
Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia
Classification 14A; 112 minutes
Opens in Toronto April 1; expands to other cities April 8
In 1996, 29-year-old Martin Bryant committed modern Australia’s worst massacre, killing 35 people and wounding many more in Port Arthur, Tasmania. It is the reason that the country has some of the most robust gun laws in the world. And is the inspiration behind Nitram, a controversial new psychological drama exploring the tragedy.
Director Justin Kurzel’s film revolves around a young man named Nitram (Martin spelled backward), played by Caleb Landry Jones, who lives with his mother (Judy Davis) and father (Anthony LaPaglia). Nitram has an intellectual disability, feeling out of place in the world, lighting off firecrackers that anger his neighbours and struggling to fit in with his peers. His mother is detached at best, embarrassed and cruel at worst. His father is caring, but solipsistic and distracted.
Hoping to make enough money to buy a surfboard, Nitram goes door-to-door offering to mow lawns. This is how he meets Helen (Essie Davis), a wealthy heiress with whom he forms a quick and intense bond. It’s a strange relationship, both maternal and yet something more – one that his mother cannot quite comprehend. Helen dotes on Nitram, buys him a car though he doesn’t have a licence and even takes him up on an offer to travel to Los Angeles on a whim.
The film packs on a series of quiet devastations for the central character that culminate in increasingly aggressive, violent behaviour, including buying and shooting a small arsenal of guns. Increasingly isolated and alone, Nitram begins drinking heavily, adrift from the connections that used to define his small life. By the time the inevitable happens, the emotional and psychological tenor of the movie has reached a fever pitch, yet the moments before Nitram’s horrific crimes are almost comically mundane, adding to the gruesomeness of their toll and the sheer scope of their loss.
Kurzel’s film is a huge point of contention in Port Arthur, where all but three cinemas refused to screen it, while the premier of Tasmania said that the movie made him uncomfortable. There was great concern after Bryant’s massacre in 1996 that achieving infamy was a possible motivation for the shootings. He was banned from reading about the case, and even photos of Bryant in his jail cell were destroyed by media for fear of publicizing and aggrandizing the perpetrator of such unmitigated cruelty.
The scandal brings to mind Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film based on the 1999 Columbine school shootings. Even before its release, Elephant was accused of glamourizing violence, with some blaming the film for a school shooting that took place years after its premiere. But like Elephant, Nitram is anything but a glamourization. It is a film that plumbs the sheer banality of gun violence, interrogating the everyday quiet before an explosion of bullets changes everything.
Featuring standout performances from Landry Jones and Davis, Nitram is uncomfortable, demanding viewing. It is the kind of work that presses on a nerve, begging you to stand up or tune out, but compelling you forward nonetheless – with its haunting portrayal of our all too boring capacity for inflicting pain.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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