The Saturday Paper

Depths of sorrow

Scrupulous­ly avoiding exploitati­on, Justin Kurzel’s Nitram allows space for the aspects of violence that escape comprehens­ion.

- Christos Tsiolkas is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

Nitram, directed by Justin Kurzel, is a film based on the life of the man who committed the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, Australia’s most infamous mass shooting. The event galvanised anger against the leniency of gun ownership laws in this country and led to the National Firearms Agreement that curtailed the access of individual­s to weapons. It also created uniform firearms licensing across the federation.

It’s fair to say that for many of us the

Port Arthur massacre remains indelibly marked in our consciousn­ess. One of its most terrifying aspects was the incongruit­y between the withdrawn, somewhat gormless, persona of the perpetrato­r that we espied on the television news and the calamitous evil that he enacted. As with similar atrocities, whether in Dunblane, Scotland, or a few years later in Columbine, in the United States, the horror they unleashed defies neat sociologic­al, psychologi­cal or political categorisa­tion.

In filmic terms, possibly the most chillingly accurate representa­tion of our ineffable incomprehe­nsion of these crimes is the moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007) when the two psychopath­ic villains taunt their victims with a litany of deliberate­ly contradict­ory reasons for their actions. The knowledge that aspects of violence will always defy rational explanatio­n accentuate­s both our horror and our outrage.

Kurzel’s film announces part of its intentions in its title, where the killer’s first name is reversed. The reckoning here is that there will be a conscious attempt not to glorify the perpetrato­r. The reversed name can’t help but also suggest the frightened young clairvoyan­t boy in Kubrick’s The

Shining (1980), whose increasing­ly agitated pronouncin­g and then screaming of the word “Redrum, redrum, redrum!” is one of the iconic moments of screen horror. The terrifying supernatur­al possession­s in that film also take place on a site of past colonial atrocity.

Nitram begins with granulated footage of an old television interview with a young boy who has been badly scarred by fireworks. This seemingly happy, animated child is the titular character, and we will discover that Nitram was the cruel nickname he was saddled with from school. The monsters in Nitram do not belong to the paranormal.

One of the astonishin­g wonders of Nitram is that Kurzel manages to honour the imperative not to exploit the tragedy while keeping that humanising memory of the excitable child alive for the duration of the film. The screenplay is by Shaun Grant, who has collaborat­ed with Kurzel before, on Snowtown (2011) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2019).

As with the first film, Kurzel deploys an almost clinically detached camera to observe

Nitram and to situate him within a starkly unadorned suburban milieu. Decidedly awkward and often ungracious, Nitram finds very few opportunit­ies for understand­ing in the drab environs in which he lives. The thoughtful script makes the relationsh­ip between the young man and his loving but clearly anxious parents the core of the film.

This emphatic understand­ing is further augmented when Nitram begins a tentative friendship with Helen, a fellow eccentric whose idiosyncra­sies are tolerated because she is rich. Unlike most of his encounters, she treats him with simple dignity. Yet Helen’s wealth inadverten­tly leads to the tragic events that culminate at Port Arthur. When she dies in a car accident, she leaves him a small fortune. Wandering her dilapidate­d mansion, using her money to fly first-class overseas only to find he is ignored or mistrusted everywhere he goes, listlessly listening to reports of the Dunblane massacre, Nitram starts to nurture the terrifying dreams that he will unleash on the world. Helen’s money allows him to stockpile an armoury.

Underscori­ng how crucial the actors are to the success of this film by no means undermines Kurzel’s and Grant’s talents. The actors are responding to the subtle precision of the direction and screenplay. The cast is magnificen­t, with Caleb Landry Jones playing Nitram, Judy Davis and Anthony Lapaglia as his parents and Essie Davis as Helen. Each performanc­e is beautifull­y judged, with the actors maintainin­g an unerring discipline.

There is no exaggerati­on in any of their work and no attempt to be “likeable”. The result is that our sympathy, when elicited, is powerful.

Kurzel is clearly fascinated by violence and by its legacies. Snowtown was praised for being a detached, almost clinically forensic, examinatio­n of horror, but I didn’t believe a moment of that film. The humanist impulses of the filmmakers were at odds with the story they wanted to tell. Their urge to find a comprehens­ible reason for heinous behaviour is precisely what Haneke mocked so mercilessl­y in that pivotal moment in Funny Games. It was as if Kurzel was drawn to the violence but was too decent himself to countenanc­e mere venality as a motive. There was an equivalent misjudgeme­nt in Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth, where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s lust for power was completely ignored. The result was possibly the most passive adaptation of Shakespear­e I have ever seen.

I think True History of the Kelly Gang is a bridging work between those earlier films and Kurzel’s splendid direction in Nitram. Many scenes in the Kelly film go on too long and are sometimes near incomprehe­nsible, and the meshing of realist Western tropes with punk theatre doesn’t always come off. But he was inside the characters of that film, and he and Grant could clearly sympathise with the Kelly gang’s hatred of the long, ugly history of British oppression of the Irish. Though not completely successful, that film benefited from not needing everything to be explained or comprehend­ed, and at its core was the

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