A film about the perpetrator of Australia’s worst mass shooting was always going to be controversial. After 25 years, Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre — in which 35 people were killed and scores more injured — is still raw for many Australians.
The announcement that the subject was to be dramatised was unsurprisingly met with trepidation. Some fear the film might cause genuine harm to survivors, while others have argued the film should not be made at all. Survivors have argued turning tragedy into entertainment is beyond the pale, raising concerns that it risks sensationalising a killer.
Some would no doubt be bristling at attachment of director Justin Kurzel to the project. Kurzel’s filmmaking pedigree includes unflinching examinations of some of Australia’s darkest criminal history. In 2011, his Snowtown was a compelling look at suburban dynamics and charismatic evil but was also graphic in its depictions of the town’s notorious killings. More recently, True History of the Kelly Gang (based on Peter Carey’s Booker-prize winning novel) treats its bushranger tale with punk-rock abandon and brutal violence.
But Nitram (Martin spelled backwards) is comparatively restrained. Tracing the lead up to the massacre, rather than the event itself, the film depicts a young man unable to assimilate into the society around him. Caleb Landry Jones (whose performance won Best Actor at Cannes this year) embodies a childlike outcast, incapable of regulating his emotions. His mother (Judy Davis) and father (Anthony LaPaglia) have grown accustomed to his aberrant behaviour, though not without being worn down by it over the years.
A chance meeting with the eccentric tax lotto heiress Helen (Essie Davis) offers Nitram his first and only friend: an equally lonely outcast. In an alternate history, the odd pair might have lived out their days peacefully in Helen’s decaying estate, listening to opera and surrounded by her many pets. But as the audience knows, this is not where the film is heading.
Where True History of the Kelly Gang toyed with avant-garde bursts of light and colour, Nitram is nuanced in style. Here it is the crack and whirr of firecrackers held seconds too long, a hand edging its way towards a nest of teeming wasps, a blaring car horn, and off-tune piano that grate on our nerves; Kurzel gradually recruits abrasive physical and sonic elements to signal a world off-kilter.
While fears abounded that the film might glorify a killer, or paint him as sympathetic, Kurzel is aware of what is at stake and careful to hold his subject at a distance.
The real perpetrator’s name is never uttered, instead “Nit-ram” is hurled at the film’s protagonist as a juvenile taunt. The young man is as unknowable to himself as he is to us, at one point remarking to his mother, “Sometimes I watch myself, and I don’t know who it is that I’m looking at.”
This opacity of character is significant. Though several moments provide possible contributing factors for the tragedy that we know is coming, Kurzel resists presenting them as a clear cause and effect trajectory. Rising family tensions, mental health concerns, a nonchalant attitude to gun sales, and a gradual chipping away at the young man’s autonomy — all of these are shown, but Kurzel does not for a moment pretend that they add up to an explanation for his subject’s actions.
When the soon-to-be killer is transfixed by a television news report about Scotland’s Dunblane massacre (a watershed moment in UK gun control reform) we are offered another pseudo-motive for the tragedy we know is imminent. This too, however, seems to point more towards our all too human desire for clarity in the wake of incomprehensible events than it does towards a coherent and containable explanation.
Naturally, many will take ire with the humanisation of someone that we would prefer to dismiss as a monster. But atrocities like the Port Arthur massacre aren’t committed by monsters, they are committed by people, and this is the deeply unsettling reality that Kurzel asks us to sit with for close to two hours.
For Kurzel, Nitram isn’t a pathologically evil villain that would be easier to reconcile with a legible understanding of horrific crimes. Nor is he a pitiable victim of social circumstance and untreated psychological issues. Where the events of his life might, in a less nuanced portrayal, generate sympathy or suggest senseless violence can ultimately be understood, Kurzel resists giving pat explanations for the sake of narrative closure.
And this complexity is where the moral value of the film lays. There is a crucial difference between humanising a problematic figure and excusing their actions.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Downfall courted similar controversy for depicting Hitler as vulnerable in the final days of the Third Reich. Of course, it is more comfortable to reduce him to a spectre than to consider that an ailing family man was capable of incomprehensible evil. But representing history’s tyrants and criminals as three dimensional is not the same as vindicating or even explaining them.
Nitram is uneasy but powerful viewing. The film’s very existence will understandably upset many, regardless of how sensitively it treats its subject. Particularly for Tasmanians, the traumatic legacy is very real and still raw.
But it may also come as a relief that Nitram does not exploit the community’s pain for entertainment or shock value and the massacre is not depicted onscreen.
Instead, the film asks complex questions about what volatile mix of personal, historical, and social forces may have led to the events of the massacre. The fact that there is no easy answer does not reduce the value of the asking.
Nitram is in cinemas from September 30th 2021.
Alison Taylor does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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