Nitram (2021)

Nitram had its Scottish première at Glasgow Film Festival 2022 

Nitram opens with a TV programme from 1979, in which a female reporter is interviewing children in the Burns Unit of the Royal Hobart Hospital. One young boy has burnt his hands on firecrackers. “Do you think you’ll be playing with firecrackers again?”, she asks. “Yes,” he answers, without hesitation. “Don’t you think you’ve learnt a lesson from this?”, she asks. “Yes,” he says, “but I’m still playing with it” – and then the title appears on screen, and we see the boy, now a young man (Caleb Landry Jones, in an understated but nonetheless arresting performance), still playing with firecrackers. He is ‘Nitram’, and is even listed as such in the film’s closing credits – although this is not his real name, but a cruel, taunting school nickname which he expressly states that he does not like, a name suggestive of nits in his long unruly hair, and of a certain backwardness. For, both as child and as adult, he is obviously different – an awkward, somewhat antisocial misfit – and that boyhood incident of playing with fire and courting the media is set to repeat itself on a much larger, more damaging scale where others, too, will get burned. In the absence of any text at the beginning declaring this film’s basis in a true story, that opening televisual footage must suffice as signifier that this narrative has been pulled from the news.

As we witness the day-to-day conduct of ‘Nitram’, see his strange interactions with his long-suffering, emotionally brittle mother (Judy Davis) and more affectionate, still sympathetic father (Anthony LaPaglia), and his developing, difficult-to-define relationship with 50-year-old eccentric, affluent Helen (Essie Davis), we may as well be watching the story of a peculiar young individual struggling to find love, companionship, even just his place in an often hostile or unaccepting world (here the south coast of Tasmania). In other words, this comes across as an oddball coming-of-ager, akin to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004) or Adam Rehmeier’s Dinner In America (2020). Yet the charming stylisations of those films are here replaced with a rigorous naturalism, and an increasing sense of the dangers that ‘Nitram’ poses to himself and others. This protagonist appears to be less comic underdog outsider, and more the elephant in the room – the Kevin (or ‘Nivek’) that needs to be talked about.

Nitram was already controversial in Australia before a single frame was shot, but if you are unaware of the film’s very real subject matter, you may wish to stop reading now (SPOILER ALERT). Like director Justin Kurzel’s feature debut Snowtown (2011), Nitram is concerned with a true crime that has scarred the Australian psyche: the Port Arthur massacre of 28-29 April 1996, perpetrated by Martin Bryant, which left 23 injured and 35 dead. Working from a screenplay by regular collaborator Shaun Grant (Snowtown; True History of the Kelly Gang, 2019), Kurzel painstakingly reconstructs and dramatises the precursors and precipitants of Bryant’s killing spree, while thankfully stopping short of depicting the incident itself. In this respect, it is like Rowan Woods‘ The Boys (1998), which though about a different Australian true crime, similarly focuses on what leads to the outrage rather than on the outrage itself. Kurzel shows a combustible mix of personal dysfunction, domestic tragedy, inadequately addressed mental health issues, deranged vendetta, extremely lax gun laws and a general lack of checks and balances in a family – and a society – that prefers to look the other way until directly under fire.

In a scene some way into the film, ‘Nitram’ is shown lying on a hospital bed in a neck brace. It is an obvious visual reference to the antihero Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) – a sociopathic delinquent who proves unable to be reformed or ‘cured’ by society of his own vicious drives. Maybe things would have turned out otherwise if ‘Nitram’ had been loved more by his mother, if his father’s big dreams had not fallen through, if Helen had not swerved her car at the wrong moment, if people had not been so willing to sell semi-automatic weapons to an obviously unsuitable, disturbed customer, or if ‘Nitram’ were simply a different person or could ‘just be like everyone else’. Indeed, there is a whole alternative, counterfactual universe hidden within Nitram, where the protagonist becomes the skilled scuba driver or surfer he dreams of being (he is hopeless at both), or finds gainful employment as a lawn mower (he tries, and quickly fails) or running a Bed and Breakfast with his dad (fate intervenes), or gets the girl (he imagines an entire parallel life with a young woman whom he meets only very briefly by the sea). These fanciful counter-narratives are aided by our expectations of the rites-of-passage genre, which comes with its own feel-good trajectory, as though growing up somehow must also involve improving – yet all this is brought into collision with the gravitational forces of reality, where ‘Nitram’ is his own worst enemy, beset by destructive compulsions, and unable, even when fortune hands him a devoted benefactor or a massive financial windfall, to resist his own darker drives. After all, ‘Nitram’ has, since childhood, liked to make things explode, and to appear on camera – and in this, he has not essentially changed, even if now he is capable of making a much louder noise.

  “What had happened was beyond this community’s comprehension”, states a TV news report on the Dunblane massacre which took place a little over a month before Bryant’s own rampage, and which evidently helped inspire it. “While Britain mourned the deaths of the innocent,” the report continues, “it also struggled to find someone or something to blame for what had happened,” while a stunned contributor adds, “We don’t know why, we don’t understand it, and I guess we never will.” As we watch ‘Nitram’ himself watching this news coverage very closely, and no doubt recognising in the Dunblane killer, described as “a misfit, a loner, an oddball and a weirdo”, something of himself, the report’s words serve as a reflexive commentary on the massacre to come that – for reasons of taste and sensitivity – Kurzel scrupulously avoids showing. For this is a film about explanatory frames and causal chains, if not quite about blame, and as it portrays a young man in a downward spiral and obviously in need of help – but biting any hand that feeds – it anatomises personal problems that are also national ones, and captures, through an inexplicable, unspeakable event, an image of an individual and a community at odds with themselves, caught in their own contradictions. “I think sometimes I watch myself but I don’t know who – who it is that I’m looking at,” ‘Nitram’ tells his ever-perplexed, exhausted mother. Kurzel’s film holds up a mirror to us all, and challenges us to recognise what we see. 

strap: Justin Kurzel’s true crime drama offers an uncomfortable portrait of a spiralling spree killer in the making

© Anton Bitel