MARTIN BRYANT’S STORY UP CLOSE AND UNCOMFORTABLE
No one wants much to do with Martin Bryant – even before he commits his heinous crime. Except, that is, for Bryant’s father, Maurice, a lonely heiress named Helen, and Justin Kurzel, a director who chooses to spend a lot of his screen time with the sort of real-life characters most of us go out of our way to avoid.
In some ways, Nitram is even harder to sit through than Kurzel’s breakthrough film, Snowtown, which retained some elements of the crime drama, even though the events of April 2829, 1996, happen entirely off screen.
This version of Bryant’s story focuses on the years leading up to the Port Arthur massacre.
Kurzel asks you to spend almost two hours in the close company of a truculent and extremely troubled misfit. He refuses to romanticise, demonise or psychoanalyse his subject. And he never once passes judgment.
But nor does he understate Bryant’s toxicity.
In one shocking scene, the man-boy’s complex response to Maurice’s debilitating depression manifests in an explosive rage towards his father.
Bryant’s impulse to grab the wheel of the car while his only friend, Helen, is driving along the highway at 80 kilometres per hour is even more discombobulating.
His response to the devastating consequences of his actions is simply unfathomable.
The ambivalence Carleen Bryant feels towards her son makes a lot of emotional sense in such a context. But the filmmakers also suggest that the hard-as-nails battler plays an integral role in her family’s dysfunctional dynamic.
Bryant’s experience of school bullying is conveyed in a similarly economical but powerful manner. Like this film or loathe it, no one can accuse Nitram (Martin spelt backwards) of a lack of nuance.
Kurzel’s assured direction and Shaun Grant’s accomplished screenwriting aside, the film’s success rests squarely on the shoulders of Caleb Landry Jones, who delivers a performance of rare integrity as Bryant. In an unlikely but inspired piece of casting, the Texan actor simultaneously invites and repels empathy.
He holds our attention with a kind of stubborn restraint, but he can switch from dead-eyed vulnerability to dangerous volatility in an instant.
Judy Davis is as uncompromising as ever as Carleen. It’s left to Essie Davis, who plays Tattersall’s heiress Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey, and Anthony LaPaglia, in what may well be his best performance to date, as Maurice, to provide the film with what little softness it has.
Nitram tells a difficult story without fear or favour. It doesn’t even try to offer a resolution.
We’re going to have to sit with that for a while.
Now showing in cinemas