When it was announced last year that a new film was entering production exploring the origins of the lone gunman who committed the unimaginable Port Arthur Massacre on the 28th and 29th of April 1996, there was some concern. It isn't unusual for films to explore such tragic events, and there have certainly been great films (and many more bad ones) focused on men who have committed acts of extreme violence. Port Arthur is different though. It has been mostly absent from dramatisation in Australian storytelling. For Australians, there is something... unfathomable about it, an almost sacred solemnity, the collective identification of it as an act of evil and malice impossible to understand, and that any attempt to do so would be foolish at best, damaging at worst.
If anyone was to approach this story though, there are few filmmakers in Australia as well-matched as Justin Kurzel. Ten years ago, he took on another dark chapter in Australia's history with 'Snowtown', a film of such abyssal darkness that it is almost impossible to watch, and yet it treated its subject with great care, great intelligence and great sensitivity, always seeking to understand but never seeking to absolve. I've long considered 'Snowtown' one of the finest films this country has ever produced, so when Kurzel was announced as our filmmaker to approach the horrors of Port Arthur and the person who committed them, I had confidence he would, at the very least, have something to say that was worth hearing.
We meet this person as a young man, Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones, 'Get Out'), living with his Mother (Judy Davis, 'The Dressmaker') and Father (Anthony LaPaglia, 'Holding the Man') in Tasmania in the 1990's. Nitram is a troubled man, prone to explosions of malcontent, until he meets a lonely millionaire, Helen (Essie Davis, 'The Babadook'). They form a close friendship, one we are led to believe is his first of any substance. When that friendship is destroyed by a tragic accident, Nitram completely loses the mooring that barely held him in place and he begins to search deeper into his darkest corners, leading him to salvation through the power of a gun and the chaos he can wield with it.
SWITCH: 'NITRAM' TRAILER
It would be very easy for the film to seek your sympathy for Nitram, the argument that such men are borne from trauma and mistreatment, and if this had been the case for the film 'Nitram', there might have been little justification for it. Such men aren't only borne from trauma though. The human soul is a complex mechanism, and anger or lack of empathy can be woven into it for no reason at all. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant aren't here to offer a hypothesis for this man's state of mind, but more carefully to allow us to bear witness to it. Nitram's world is one of intense isolation, but not one he experiences alone. Father desperately searches for some sort of path to a better life for him and his family. Mother has dedicated herself to supporting her son, despite the fact others cannot share her empathy for him and that she cannot always hide her own contempt for his cruelty. Helen isolates herself entirely from the world for reasons we do not understand but are clearly endemic. If 'Nitram' seeks to find origins for this person, perhaps it is in these three figures as the pillars of his world, and as those pillars start to crumble, what connection he has to empathy or self-control crumbles with them.
Nitram himself is ultimately unknowable, and this is the masterstroke of the film and of Caleb Landry Jones' Cannes-winning performance. You look into his eyes and you see nothing there except quick flashes of desperation or burning fireworks of uncomfortable joy. We are so used to these kinds of films and narratives trying to tell us why this person is the way they are as if it might help us comprehend the acts they committed, but 'Nitram' makes the sensitive, careful and important decision not to seek understanding or context. Even after two hours, all we really, truly know of this person is how deep their psychosis goes, a psychosis shaped by loneliness and isolation, dismissal and perhaps a lack of empathetic support, but this is all. We do not know his dreams or ambitions, his fears or desires. He may not even have any. He is a walking nothingness, an object of mockery and frustration for those around him until the danger inside him overflows in bursts of startling, disquieting violence.
During the first act of 'Nitram', you do find yourself wondering what this is all leading to. Everything about the film is astounding, from the performances to the writing to the cinematography and editing, all led by Kurzel's meticulous direction, but if this is just a portrait of a monster as a young man, then the film would ultimately be a waste and offer no reason to approach one of Australia's most upsetting modern events. As those pillars of support crumble around Nitram though, he finds his new guiding light and the film delivers its blow. 'Nitram' is not a film about why terrible men do terrible things, but how we give them access to the tools with which to do them. You expect moments of horror to come, but the first true moment where your stomach drops and your hands shake is the sight of this young man in a gun store. We're used to this scene, but not with Australian accents. We're used to this scenario, but not depicted with such meticulous, almost banal detail. The ease with which this person is given access to weapons of annihilation is the true horror at the heart of this film, that in the mid-'90s in Australia, it was that easy for a young man to amass ammunition fit for a small army.
'Nitram' is not a film about why terrible men do terrible things, but how we give them access to the tools with which to do them.
I have very clear memories of when gun laws were enforced in Australia, with my stepdad, a farmer who owned a number of guns, explaining to me how the government was going to buy them from him and destroy them, and the reasons why. This was my only understanding of the state of gun laws in Australia before April 1996. Seeing Nitram walk into a store full of innumerable firearms and purchase them without any form of check or questioning sent shockwaves through me. It is almost unbelievable, but then there's no fanfare, no flashes of bombast in this moment. It is clear, clinical and direct, so matter-of-fact that it feels as easy as going to the shops. And then the film moves towards the inevitable with the same meticulous care, throttling us further into a nightmare we the audience know is coming, but suddenly understanding how easily it had been allowed to happen.
Since 1996, we have sat in this country and watched acts of gun violence in the United States with a smug self-righteousness that our gun laws protect us from that level of tragedy and anarchy. This has always been the problem with gun laws, the thought that the gun itself is to blame, but the true blame lies in both those who wield them and those who supply them. We can be as smug as we like, but that man was able to procure those guns with staggering ease and commit an act of violence as catastrophic as any committed in the U.S. only 25 years ago. We have those laws to protect us now, but they came at a cost, and we risk ourselves by forgetting that and allowing those laws to slip, just as they have been. People like that man are not just created out of circumstance or misfortune; sometimes they are just born, and the best way we can help them, protect them and protect others is to preserve systems of support and not allow systems of unchecked violent expression. 'Nitram' doesn't want you to feel sorry for this person. It doesn't want you to pity him. It wants you to know he existed, know what he did, and know how astoundingly important it is that we prevent such men from doing it again.
Rather than being an act of emotional exploitation, as many feared it would be, 'Nitram' is an act of vital and necessary filmmaking, as careful as it can be without disrespecting or misrepresenting its subject or intentions. Each well-considered decision is not just to make sure the film is as accomplished as it can be, but to make sure its reason for existing is justified. If you're going to ask an Australian audience to return to this terrible event and, even more so, to have any degree of emotional connection with the man who committed it, then it better have been for a damn good reason, and the true brilliance of 'Nitram' is in how clear and powerful that reason is. Every frame of the film bears the weight of responsibility on its shoulders, but it bears it with integrity.
Ultimately, what 'Nitram' asks us to do is look across those 25 years and ask ourselves what we have learned, what we have protected, and what we have forgotten. There are countless men like that one living lives of quiet desperation, waiting for some clue as to what their destiny might be. In the wake of Port Arthur, perhaps we became complacent about their existence, but in the past few years, we have been reminded that they are still here. They might be playing war games in the Grampians or marching through our capital cities under the guise of protest, but it is the legacy of the men, women and children who were lost in April 1996 that we believe prevent them from hurting us. That legacy is more important than any dramatisation could, and it is that legacy that 'Nitram' concerns itself with. It is an act of the political and the social as well as the emotional and the artistic, and on all fronts, it exceeds in devastating fashion.
'Nitram' is as difficult a film to watch as you would expect, but not in the ways you would expect. It is a haunting, at times gothic, ultimately overwhelming look into the abyss of a man who saw pain and chose to laugh. It is a rumble of fury at the foolish carelessness that allowed him to do it. It is a demand that we stop and take stock before such men emerge to threaten innocent lives again. It is an attempt to make sense of the unfathomable. And it is one of the most important, powerful and accomplished films of the year.