Director – Justin Kurzel – 2022 – Australia – Cert. 15 – 112m
A drama re-imagining of the events in the life of a young man leading up to Tasmania’s 1996 Port Arthur Massacre – out in cinemas on Friday, July 1st
This extraordinary character study starts off with a sense of foreboding which never really lets up. Children are interviewed at the Royal Tasmania Hospital’s Burns Unit and asked how their accidents occurred. We expect cautionary tales of lessons learned. But the second child interviewed states matter-of-factly that he still plays with firecrackers, Then we see Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) as a grown youth, some years later, doing exactly that in the garden of the house in which he lives with his parents, to the annoyance not only to his parents who have to put up with it but also to the neighbours.
His mum (Judy Davis), worn down by years of such behaviour, insists Nitram surrender the fireworks to his father (Anthony LaPaglia) who is weighed down by financial worries – he needs to get a loan off the bank – and ineffectual at discipline. She also insists he put his filthy overalls in the wash (and they are pretty disgusting) before sitting down to eat dinner with them, which he then does, returning to the table in his underpants, which she lets pass with no comment since he’s complied.
Nitram’s latest fad is surfing, but his mum sees him looking at surf boards beyond his financial reach and tells him that’s not for him. He hands out by the nearby sea and makes tentative advances to a girl Riley (Phoebe Taylor), only to discover she’s the girlfriend of a surfer, Jamie (Sean Keenan).
He doesn’t have a job, and in an attempt to raise some cash, Nitram trundles the family lawn mower around the neighbourhood touting himself as a lawn mower for hire. This seemingly fruitless exercise gets doors shut in his face until he gets lucky and stumbles upon Helen (Essie Davis), a lone woman living in a big, rambling house, who takes him on. He screws it up when he can’t get the machine to work and vents his frustration upon it. However, rather than send him packing, she tells him she’ll find other things to do around the house.
This develops into his moving in with her, although as his mother observes, it’s not clear whether Helen is a lover or a mother to the boy. Helen takes him to a car showroom and they take a second hand car out for a test drive. The salesman (Lucas Friend), sitting in the back seat, regards Helen as a valued client but is shaken (as are we the audience) by Nitram’s habit of grabbing the wheel from Helen while she’s driving and violently swerving the car, a game which will have tragic consequences later in the narrative.
She is none too pleased when he starts using his air rifle for target practice in the garden and orders him to get rid of it.
It turns out that Helen is an heiress worth a considerable sum of money: whatever financial worries Nitram might have previously had in terms of dependency on his none-too-well-off parents are behind him. She is a former actress and singer well past her sell-by date obsessed with her glory days of performing in such Gilbert and Sullivan operas as The Mikado, whiling away her days dressing up in old costumes and playing their songs on her record player. Through her, Nitram gets to know their repertoire.
Despite his being dangerously unstable, she somehow loves him. Love is blind, they say. After her passing, he inherits everything. And begins amassing a gun arsenal.
When the massacre occurs in the final reel, we don’t see it. Nitram enter a cafe in a packed public park hospitality area, take guns out of his bag and walks out of shot to the waitress we’ve seen him talk to only minutes before. We see his mother at home, smoking a cigarette on the porch as inside on the TV the horrific news breaks. There’s no attempt here to glorify violence, the proceedings focusing rather upon the perpetrator-to-be’s dysfunctional family and dependent / parasitic sexual relationships.
As in the opening child firecracker incident, he’s an individual who refuses to accept and constantly pushes boundaries that most people would never cross, as if he completely lacks moral grounding in a basic understanding of right and wrong. Everything is a game, nothing is sacred – not people’s right to peace and quiet in their homes, not the sanctity of human life. Shaun Grant’s powerful yet down to earth screenplay never reduces Nitram to a stereotypical bad guy, preferring to show him as an ordinary young man with a whole series of issues with which no one quite knows how to deal.
Playing Nitram, Caleb Landry Jones is all too believable. You spend your time both feeling sorry for him and wondering what is wrong with him, but if you met him in real life you’d steer well clear. And yet, when his father is dying from a terminal illness, he shows genuine affection for him. His attempt to dress well for the funeral – in a light, pastel coloured suit – is misinterpreted by his mother as disrespectful and she refuses to let him attend the funeral. Nitram makes bad choices with terrible consequences, but so, it seems, does his mother.
Where LaPaglia conjures the father as ineffectual, Davis, in a performance as good as anything else in her impressive career, paints the mother as conflicted between on the one hand giving up all hope that her son will ever be like anyone else and on the other still attempting to set boundaries for him in the forlorn hope that it will make some sort of difference. The family home has a an exterior crack hosting a swarm of bees, which fascinate Nitram even as they are steadfastly ignored by his mother, a shocking visual metaphor for the malaise within the family. This plays out in marked contrast to Helen, cosseted from the real world by considerable wealth and Savoy Opera gramophone records, her sense of judgement skewed accordingly.
It’s a chamber film, to all intents and purposes a four-hander, played out mostly in domestic and automobile Tasmanian interiors, delivering a sense of confinement in an environment of vast spaces and and sunny blue skies. Its subject matter might sound off-putting, yet this compelling character study is a genuine attempt to understand how character defects can cause intimate human relationships to go horribly wrong, impacting terrifyingly on the wider social world around them.
Throw guns into that mix and it becomes a far more potent and deadly cocktail. Nitram’s cherished air rifle was a present his beloved father gave him years ago, and in his head he can’t seem to separate the idea of a present given as an act of affection and kindness from a weapon with lethal capability. Basic values of right and wrong again. When she buys him a car, Helen assumes he can drive and has a licence. (He doesn’t.)
When he visits the gun shop to make some purchases, on seeing that he has the money to pay, the gun salesman asks him checks and balances type questions, but again, when he learns Nitram has no firearms licence, after a moment’s hesitation, the money gets the better of him and he goes through with the deal. Unlike the illicit gun seller who operates out of an (American) hotel room in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), this is a shop with physical premises supposedly operating within the (Australian) law.
After the real life shooting took place over 25 years ago, Australia’s gun laws were tightened, but many of the recommendations were never implemented and, with the passing of time, regulation of guns has become more lax to the point where there are now more in Australia than there were at the time.
As the US grapples with conflicting ideas of free will and the ‘right to bear arms’ against the fact that if you allow people to own guns, they have the potential to kill, this sharply observed drama from Australia couldn’t be more pertinent. See it.
Nitram is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 1st.