Nitram – Review

Release Date – 1st July 2022, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 52 minutes, Director – Justin Kurzel

Drama following mass-shooter Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) in the build up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

There’s no denying the eventual hard watch that writer Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel’s Nitram is. It gradually somewhat prepares you for what is to come thanks to the slow burn nature that its course takes, and the fact that from the start it acknowledges that it is not a piece of entertainment. In the build up to the events of the Port Arthur mass shooting in 1996 we follow shooter Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) – only ever, and very rarely, referred to as Nitram (the character name also listed as this in the credits), a name used to taunt and bully him since his school days. From his opening moments, letting off fireworks in his back garden in the middle of the day, to the anger of his neighbours, Landry Jones’ figure is shown to be isolated amongst his surroundings.

As the film progresses, and Martin leaves his tired but trying mum (an excellent, scene-stealing Judy Davis) and dad (Anthony LaPaglia) to live with Essie Davis’ former-actress Helen – specialising in Gilbert and Sullivan productions – various layers are brought in to enhance the fear around the central character and what is inevitably going to happen. Small details bring in an eerie nature that lingers in the mind, slowed down Gilbert and Sullivan tracks played over home video/ holiday footage. Two extended scenes in a gun shop where Martin discusses weaponry, specifics, range, ammo, licenses, etc with the owners are held onto to simply leave the viewer in increasing dread and tension.

Perhaps what makes the moment worse is the fact that up until this moment there has been little discussion of what’s going on inside the central character’s mind, or indeed the thoughts of the few people around him. Initially the bare scratching of the surface is when asked “are you sick?” the response of “no, I just get sad sometimes”. We get very few glimpses, or instances of personal understanding of what’s happening in the mind of the title character. However, much of this specifically comes to the fore when sat down with his mum at the table and they begin to discuss how they are respectively feeling, although hostility still hangs in the air. Ideas of mental health quietly float in the background of a handful of scenes, particularly those where a fear factor rises due to the actions that are being acted out and where things are leading.

In many ways while watching I was reminded of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in the way that nothing is played in a showy nature and much is shown with a direct matter-of-fact nature. Not just in terms of the inevitable events at the end of the film, naturally held as you feel and notice people generally going around their day, but the course that’s travelled along alone. The first half may take a while for the elements to properly come together and the ideas to be properly established in terms of how the film is dealing with the central character and his behaviours, however as the second half arrives things begin to develop more and look into the impacts and effects of certain moments beforehand and how they further build-up to the ending. Certainly, this means that the film is going to be a hard watch for a number of potential viewers, it’s very likely supposed to be. But, it’s effective because of that and feels this way largely thanks to the build up; once it’s properly established its elements and starts to look at the emotions and thoughts of not just its central figure, but those around him too.

While it might take a bit of time for the ideas and elements to come together Nitram forms an interesting film, with plenty of fear and tension in the final 15-20 minutes. A hard watch for some, more so because of the effectively unshowy nature and slow pacing, but it certainly hits some good notes in its thoughts on undiscussed mental health and personal understanding.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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