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Review: Nitram – “An uncomfortable watch but an essential one”

Despite the legitimate controversy that surrounded Nitram’s release in its homeland down under back in September, the latest horrifying American mass shooting that took place at Robb elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, just over a month ago, makes the film’s release in the UK eerily poignant and heart-breaking in its timeliness.

Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, True history of the Kelly gang) had no doubt that tackling the tragedy of 1996’s massacre in Porth Arthur, Tasmania, where a lone gunman killed 35 people and wounded 23 more, (at the time history’s worst ever mass-shooting) was going to raise eyebrows in his homeland. Especially since screenwriter (and Kurzel’s frequent collaborator) Shaun Grant has chosen to tell the story from the perpetrator’s point of view.

However, that’s what makes the film compelling and important. Not because it tries in any way to justify or even worse give a platform to a convicted criminal (who received 35 life sentences, one for each victim). But because by exploring the weeks leading up to the bone-chilling, pre-meditated mass-murder, the filmmakers offer an insight into the pitfalls of our society, which to this day has an enormous gap to fill when it comes to handling gun-control, mental health, and social alienation.

The film never shows any of the violence that occurred on that infamous day and doesn’t use the subject’s real name. Nitram is in fact the reversed spelling of his name, cleverly used as a way he was bullied at school in this dramatized account of his life. The filmmakers do everything in their power to avoid even remotely glamourising this individual and his despicable actions and the point they’re trying to make is to tell the cautionary tale of how easily he was able to get his hands on semi-automatic firearms without having a license.

This is a grim, harrowing, yet hypnotic character study driven by the towering and mesmerizing performance of Caleb Landry Jones (Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) who was deservedly recognised as best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t easy to find the right balance for this role, but Jones is outstanding at generating the right dose of empathy for a disturbed young man who needed a better support system to hopefully be steered away from the darkness and at building up an incredible amount of tension, foreboding the inevitable as he progressively becomes more and more unhinged.

The supporting cast is equally deserving of high praise with Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis brilliantly subtle in portraying Nitram’s inept parents and the consistently terrific Essie Davis playing eccentric heiress Helen, a failed actress who lives in a dilapidated mansion with a flock of dogs and takes Nitram under her wing, when he shows up one day at her door, asking if she’s interested in having her lawn mowed.

Since the jarring opening scene with Nitram setting off fireworks in his backyard, igniting the neighbours’ fury for what is clearly a repeated offense, we promptly get a sense of what we’re about to delve into. The filmmakers take us on a slow-burning yet nail-biting journey that peels layer after layer within the deeply troubled mind of an aimless young man living in isolation, caught between a good-cop father figure and an overbearing mother.

Some may find the parental portraits to be a bit of a cliché in the wake of the soon-to-be monster they’ve raised. However, the filmmakers never make judgements or point fingers. The ineptitude of Nitram’s parents matches their desperation and the lack of an efficient support system for families with such a difficult situation is frustrating to say the least. The scene at the psychiatrist’s office with Nitram declining the offer for talking therapy and his mother only being interested in his medication refill says it all.

A lost soul with a poorly treated mental disorder whose every attempt at fitting in is met with derision and bullying, it’s no surprise that Nitram bonds with Helen as she’s the only person showing him kindness. Their age gap though lends itself to inevitable criticism from the boy’s mother and when Nitram’s antics compromise the relationship, the little balance he seemed to have found, is suddenly disrupted, throwing him into the spiral that will lead to the tragic events of April 1996.

Director Justin Kurzel has poignantly reflected on how “since his feature debut Snowtown, he has been interested in why these young men search for answers in such extreme violence. Is there a cultural void that starves these human beings of a tribe, an absence of belonging? What becomes their compass? What corrupts them towards this apathetic and senseless need to destroy life? There are no answers but the legacy of Porth Arthur warns the future of its perils.” I couldn’t agree more, and Kurzel uses some of his distinctive aesthetic tools to vividly bring the stark reality of this story to life with the help of Germain McMicking’s gorgeously evocative cinematography.

Although I understand and respect the victims’ families and the survivors protesting the film being made, I also support the filmmakers’ intent in wanting to make sure we don’t forget, and we learn from our past mistakes as a society. After all, as highlighted at the end of the film before credits roll, which is what propelled screenwriter Shaun Grant to push for the project, despite the introduction of a National Firearms Agreement in ’96 following the tragedy, some gun laws in Australia have been relaxed since then and many of its suggestions were never implemented. In fact, there are more weapons owned in Australia now than in 1996. If this isn’t enough of a reason for the film to exist, I think we need to reassess our priorities. Nitram is an uncomfortable watch but an essential one.

Nitram is in UK cinemas now.

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