Going into the film Nitram by Justin Kurzel, known for bleak pictures like The Snowtown Murders and his muddy, overwrought adaptation of Macbeth, I wasn't aware of what it was truly about. The first half this Australian suburb-set tale almost felt like a loose, quirky Harold and Maude-type idiosyncratic love story with a shaggy blond intellectually disabled, heavily (and jaggedly) medicated late teen / early twenty-something titular character (Caleb Landry Jones) with a rowdy penchant for firecrackers and pushing boundaries, who has a pair of emotionally-stunted parents who just don't understand him (played by Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), or perhaps, understand him too (frighteningly) well, and his unexpected relationship with an eccentric, sweet wealthy woman (Essie Davis) in her rambling mansion full of ambling dogs.
As it is not necessary to go into the film cold as I did, the film is based upon incidents leading up to the Port Arthur massacre, a 1996 shooting which took the lives of thirty-five people and wounding twenty-three others. Kurzel's film is essentially a close, detailed character study based upon the perpetrator. To take upon this story through this lens is definitely an audacious choice, and one, that could understandably make many upset, especially those close to the occurrence. There have been many movies and documentaries that take the point-of-view of real-life killers and the violent acts they have perpetuated. In some respect, one wonders why these films should be made. Nevertheless, Nitram, which reveals the real-life gunman as a child in the opening credits in a hospital, wounded by firecrackers, is cloudy: it doesn't feel exploitative nor stringently "tasteful."
Nitram is mostly captivating movie, much due to the specificity of its atmosphere--its houses, and cars and beachside landscapes, filmed with a quiet, almost unnerving distilled, golden quality (the cinematography is by Germain McMicking)--and, of course, its actors, who do incredible work through haunting subtlety (a transformative Landry Jones, Judy Davis, and a ghostly Essie Davis in particular). As the weary mother of Nitram, it is Judy Davis, with her lined face, tight, short haircut and banal clothing, who imbues inner grief and anger. Sometimes that inner grief and anger comes through when we see who she decides to look at and when, and also through the vicious antagonism she can dish out, occasionally under the veneer of genteelism. Midway through the film she tells a story of losing a young Nitram in a fabric shop--the way she reveals it is vivid and devastatingly taut; the story becomes almost fully symbolic of their whole overall relationship in general and also her son's psychology. Throughout, Kurzel demonstrates great sympathy towards these characters: it's mostly a film about behavior more than anything else. Although when the film moves towards Nitram's gallingly easy purchases of assault weapons, it veers into the polemic. The end title cards reveal Australian's ban and confiscation of weapons swiftly after the incident. While not every film in the world has to pertain to America, of course, this one hits hard after this past week, and the contrast of action versus inaction demonstrates just how irresponsible and feckless our political leaders have been for decades in the face of supporting a churning, reprehensible industry of greed over preventing mass murder. ***