Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Essie Davies, Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis
One of my most vivid cinema-going memories remains a preview screening of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant back in 2003. The screening room was filled to capacity and, when the movie was over and the lights robotically illuminated the room, not a person spoke. Aside from a perceptible collective exhale, not a word was uttered. The entire credits played without anyone getting up in this same quiet. And then everyone filed out of the room. Slowly, orderly, maintaining that same contemplative silence. Elephant – and it’s striking approach to it’s difficult subject matter – had shattered us.
It’s possible that Justin Kurzel’s Nitram works as an argument that, when it comes to true crime re-enactments or biopics, the less you know the better. While everything here is pertinent from a psychological perspective, you’re waist-deep in the picture before the shadow of what’s to come falls. And it’s interesting how the film shifts as it approaches the events of April 28th and 29th 1996.
We’re in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Local maladjust Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) is little more than a volatile, directionless nuisance to his parents. His father (Anthony LaPaglia) is distracted chasing dreams and battling his own depression. His mother (Judy Davis) is battle fatigued from raising her boy, steeped in resentment for the child she ought to love. Davis’ face is a complicated picture; angry but also guilt-ridden for it. At school the boy was dubbed ‘Nitram’ because he was deemed backwards, and it’s a moniker that has stuck, though barely anyone cares to call him by any name at all.
While out trying to scrounge up money mowing lawns, our troubled lead meets Helen (Essie Davis), a rich eccentric who sees something magical and moving in the boy and the two become fast-friends. The viewer is left to scrutinise and guess at the level of genuine affection felt by it’s sociopathic protagonist. Is Helen a replacement mother figure to him? A potential sexual partner? Or merely a convenience and source of funds?
Nitram is at it’s best when it itemises and contemplates the dynamic between ‘Nitram’ and Helen. Arousal is suggested, prickled, but more keenly the performances tunnel into their mutually beneficial codependency; the sense that each is filling a void in the other. It’s a relationship that Judy Davis’ unnamed mother cannot understand, and the film crackles when the two Davises are sizing one another up at a luncheon that takes on a much darker significance in the final act.
While it’s thrilling to watch these two queens of Australian cinema at work across a country club tabletop, it is American interloper Landry Jones who generates the most attention here. An actor with no shortage of reprobates on his résumé already, the ways in which he thoroughly commits to this role are fascinating. We’ve seen him in snivelling-wretch mode before (Heaven Knows What, Get Out, Twin Peaks), but there’s a less showy (yet still tortured) complexity occurring here that is inherently interesting to watch. More leading roles for this uncanny actor, please.
And yet, as Nitram edges toward it’s own inevitability, questions come to the fore about responsibility in filmmaking. Part of the reason Elephant totally shattered it’s audiences is how it levelled the playing field, contemplating the ramifications (emotional, psychological, physical) of both killer and victim, albeit from a steely remove. Nitram – like so many true crime biopics – behaves as a singular character study, asking us to sympathise with the devil while leaving much of the remainder out of frame. On the one hand it excels at this – in large part thanks to Landry Jones, but also thanks to Kurzel’s uncharacteristic restraint – but on the other it feels increasingly myopic as it’s final half hour takes shape. There’s even a queasy feeling of exploitation that builds, as though Kurzel is deliberately making us worry about how much he’s going to show us. A move that feels downright callous and manipulative after the fact.
The trailer for the film is a coy work of art that repeatedly obscures or cuts to deny us a look at Landry Jones’ face. It engenders a sense of promise; that only by seeing the film will we ‘see’ him; that Kurzel (and screenwriter Shaun Grant) have something new to reveal about Martin Bryant. Something too shocking or truthful to spoil. But that sense of pieces missing exists faithfully in the film, too. We see plenty of Landry Jones’ face, of course, but the refusal of any character to name him makes him feel like a ghost in the picture. The suggestion – as echoed in a darkly deployed piece of Dunblane news footage – is that we’ll never truly know. An aching open question that ends the film on a deliberate, difficult shrug.
The credits play out in steely silence, but the audience isn’t shattered, as with Elephant. We’re left conflicted. About who ‘Nitram’ was, and about how Nitram depicts him.