By Tim Kroenert
4 November 2021
How do you portray on screen Australia’s worst modern-day massacre, Port Arthur, in a way that is both sensitive and truthful? How do you contend with the human realities, as well as the social and political context in which the film is made?
In recent years there has been a push to leave unnamed the perpetrators of mass murders. It’s an attempt to deny them power and infamy in the public imagination, and make their victims known instead. To make a film like Nitram in this climate was always going to be a tricky proposition at best.
Director Justin Kurzel adopts a fact-based approach that is compelling, but undeniably problematic. He takes steps to defamiliarise the subject, casting an American actor in the central role. Caleb Landry Jones’ gnarly features are a far cry from the cold-eyed cherubic visage that appeared on newspaper front pages. Kurzel fills out the cast with esteemed Australian A-listers: Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia as the young man’s long-suffering parents, Essie Davis as the eccentric heiress who for a time inserts a semblance of joy into the life of her fellow misfit. All bring a dignified, graceful depth to their performances.
But there is no denying the perpetrator is at the centre of it all. It’s illuminating to compare Kurzel’s treatment here with his portrayal of another heinous true Australian crime in his debut feature Snowtown. This, like Nitram, is a relentlessly grim study of the characters and circumstances surrounding the horrific core events. But those who collaborated with the mastermind of the “bodies in barrels” murders were in many ways victims themselves. They were marginalised suburbanites, vulnerable to charismatic manipulations. By centring these perspectives Kurzel kept the main perpetrator at an objective distance.
Nitram on the other hand asks us to engage centrally with the perpetrator. We witness his mental health struggles. We see the varied effectiveness of his parents’ contrasting disciplinary and caregiving styles. We see the social disenfranchisement and present-day traumas that push him to breaking point. It feels like a rote tick-list of all the things historically used to excuse this type of crime. Even in refusing to name him, the film adopts for him a moniker, “Nitram”, explicitly linked to his history of being bullied. The fact it avoids exploitatively portraying the massacre on screen is a mercy. But conversely, it leaves us with little to ponder but the perpetrator’s motivating anguish.
The film has one saving grace. Its low key “real villains” are the weapons peddlers who allow a troubled individual to arm himself sufficiently enough to murder 35 people. It closes with a reminder the massacre led to a much-needed tightening of gun laws, and a portent that there are more guns in Australia now than there were at the time of Port Arthur. A cautionary tale? Perhaps. But I was left wondering whether we really needed this film to remind us.