By Michael Sicinski
Shortly before the close of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, word began to circulate that a very successful, cash-flush US distributor had snagged the rights to Nitram, the fifth feature film by Australia’s Justin Kurzel. Although the film didn’t seem to make much of an impression upon its Croisette premiere, the Spike Lee-led jury took notice of Nitram’s star, Caleb Landry Jones, giving him a somewhat unexpected Best Actor prize. This raised the film’s profile of course, but Nitram’s subject matter also seemed destined to pique the interest of certain aggressively hip mini-majors, so everything seemed to be proceeding according to pattern. Then, there was silence: no press release, no public acknowledgment of the deal. Months later, it was in fact IFC Films that had made a deal for Nitram.
This seems pertinent since Nitram appears to promise mayhem and lots of it, which is a lure for certain brand-conscious distributors, so fixated on showing the Twitter and TikTok crowd that foreign films can be bad-ass (like, say, Palme winner Titane), eschewing the frequent association of art cinema with a graying bourgeoisie. But Kurzel, whose previous films have showcased a particular fascination with the old ultra-violence, seems to have taken a slight detour with Nitram. A scrupulously fact-based account of Tasmania’s Port Arthur Massacre of April 1996, in which Martin Bryant gunned down 35 people, Nitram spends about 100 minutes slowly turning the crank of grim inevitability only to keep the entire killing spree offscreen.
This is by no means a disappointing decision, but it’s a notable one because Kurzel’s earlier work, especially Snowtown (2011) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), were more than happy to provide audiences with a healthy dose of blood and guts. More than this, however, Kurzel has shown a predilection for certain key events in white Australian history, bringing a fairly realistic cinematic approach to central national myths and flashpoints. Taken as a whole—and perhaps even including his Michael Fassbender-starring version of Macbeth (2015)—it’s an oeuvre that suggests that masculine savagery is foundational to civilization, and to the Australian nation in particular.
So in a way, and ignoring for the moment Kurzel’s big-budget, Fassbender-fronted game-to-film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed (2016), Nitram is the director’s odd film out, for a couple of reasons. First, unlike Kurzel’s previous work, it is an intimate portrait of a psychopath, and as such it follows certain conventions: a bit like Van Sant’s Columbine-à-clef Elephant (2003), and even more like Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009), Nitram is forced to walk a thin line. At the same time that it indulges the viewer’s psychological curiosity, the desire to have something approximating a reason, or set of reasons, for an inexplicable act, it must accomplish this without explicitly soliciting sympathy for or appearing in any way to encourage identification with a mass murderer. This balancing act often results in films that waver between tragedy (in the original Greek sense) and outright exploitation, producing a muddle of conflicting affective tendencies. David Jacobson’s Dahmer (2002) strives for the former, and occasionally achieves it through Jeremy Renner’s delicate performance; Matthew Bright’s Ted Bundy (2002), on the other hand, aims low and hits somewhere in the middle.
Most of the time, films about serial killers (at least those that are not made for Lifetime or Netflix) err on the side of respectability: they withhold direct access to the killers’ personalities, and make sure to provide reasonably well-rounded portraits of the victims. Polytechnique fits this model to a T; Elephant, meanwhile, reduces all of its subjects—killers and victims alike—to a handful of basic traits, while subsuming them within a formal system of tracking shots and looping time. By contrast, Nitram often feels like an exploitation film that simply doesn’t work. This is not the fault of its star Jones, who is almost never offscreen and who does reasonably solid work as “Nitram” (the film’s Bryant) within the gawk-eyed, mumble-and-stutter parameters Kurzel provides him. We are given clues to suggest he was a bad seed from the start, as his mother (a steely Judy Davis) tells Nitram’s sort-of girlfriend (Essie Davis) about a cruel prank the boy played when he was five (the real Bryant killed animals as a child, something Kurzel chooses to omit); at other points, however, Kurzel intimates that Bryant was a victim of bullying, which, together with a serious intellectual disability, made him what he was.
This, of course, is called having it both ways. Nitram implies that we must stare into the face of evil in order to ascertain its provenance (this notion is pretty much the sum total of Lynne Ramsay’s awful 2012 adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin), but when we are asked to gaze into Martin Bryant’s soul, we see nothing. The closest Kurzel comes to lighting on an actual rationale for the Port Arthur killings is his decision to focus on Nitram’s relationship with his dad (Anthony LaPaglia) and decision to exact revenge on his behalf. But by aggressively multiplying the “reasons” for Bryant’s rampage, Nitram nullifies all of them. Certain contemporary talking points are checked off the list, as particular scenes hint at incel behaviour, repressed homosexuality, neuro-atypicality, and dysfunctional emotional regulation. But, very much like a protracted version of Elephant’s scene of Not-Dylan and Not-Eric in the basement, engaging in multiple red-flag activities in quick succession, Nitram assumes a shrugging stance. People are so complicated, it seems to say, that we can never know what really provoked Bryant to pull the trigger. In this way, Nitram becomes an almost literal exercise in futility.
If there is one particular aspect of the Port Arthur Massacre that distinguishes it from Snowtown, the Kellys, or other bloody moments in Australian history, it is its aftermath. Twelve days after the killings, Australia implemented comprehensive gun regulation, the National Firearms Agreement, which included a federal buyback program that purchased 643,000 firearms from Australian citizens in order to destroy them. However, lest the Aussies’ response seem like even a qualified success, Kurzel’s concluding chyron notes that none of the country’s states or territories even fully abided by the agreement, and that “there are now more firearms owned in Australia than in 1996.” Under the guise of articulating a national crisis, Kurzel essentially demonstrates the impossibility of implementing meaningful gun control.
In the US, we often cite the Sandy Hook murders, in which 26 people (including 20 children) were murdered, as a turning point in our discourse around gun legislation. There was a solid year of discussion, suggesting that the slaughter of six-year-olds was in fact a bridge too far; meanwhile, the National Rifle Association kept quiet, waiting for the palpable horror to fade into vague cultural memory, as it inevitably does. It is interesting, but not surprising, that no screenwriter or director has tried to move forward with a film about Sandy Hook. The reasons for this could be as simple as child-actor regulations within the industry, vis-à-vis the insurmountable difficulty of placing young performers in traumatic situations; it could also be the recognition that a film like that would repel many more viewers than it would entice. Still, if we are to judge by Nitram, Martin Bryant and Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza had quite a bit in common. Both were mentally impaired, but just enough to recognize that their failure assumed the mantle of patriarchal white privilege; all that was left, then, was the ability to inflict harm. If this is really the foundational mythos of white Australia, to say nothing of white America, it’s one that artists do not yet seem prepared to dismantle.
Australia, Justin Kurzel