Justin Kurzel’s difficult drama about a notorious mass murderer falls into familiar pitfalls of the true crime genre.
Justin Kurzel is quickly becoming the foremost cinematic chronicler of Australian true crime. Having kicked off his directing career in 2011 with Snowtown, recalling the series of murders committed in and around Adelaide in the 1990s, he covered the exploits of outlaw Ned Kelly in his last feature, True History of the Kelly Gang, in 2019.
His fifth film, Nitram, returns to this territory by centring on the ’96 Port Arthur massacre. The worst mass shooting in Australian history saw 35 people killed and a further 23 injured in the Tasmanian tourist destination. Martin Bryant, who carried out the attack, was sentenced to 35 life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Kurzel reteams with screenwriter Shaun Grant, who also wrote the screenplays for Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang. Caleb Landry Jones is “Nitram” (Martin backwards) with a surprisingly good Australian accent, while Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia play his concerned but ultimately loving parents. Tracking Nitram over an unknown period, we witness as he forms a close relationship with wealthy misfit Helen (Essie Davis), only to suffer a series of tragedies that send him down the destructive path which would send shockwaves around Australia.
The problem with Nitram is the problem with true crime more generally since the genre exploded in popularity: the focus continues to be on the perpetrators of these horrific crimes rather than their victims. These people remain anonymous, almost an afterthought, as Kurzel and Grant are so intent on portraying the human face of the Port Arthur massacre.
The team go to great lengths to show Nitram as a lonely, awkward soul whose predilection towards fireworks and firearms are concerning but ultimately balanced by his love of animals and devastation when he loses his best friend and father in quick succession. It’s clear that the intention here is to humanise Bryant, to highlight that monsters can come from anywhere, but this feels like a path filmmakers have trodden time and time before, from 1968’s The Boston Strangler to 2017’s My Friend Dahmer.
The film also overemphasises Nitram’s difficult relationship with his mother, as though her stern nature was integral to his decision to commit such a devastating act of violence. The link between psychopathy and “mommy issues” is inherently flawed and more than a little misogynistic, especially given that Nitram’s father is portrayed in a much more favourable light. Full credit to Judy Davis though, who does her best to bring to life a thinly-sketched character. (The real-life Carleen Bryant believed her son to be innocent, despite the overwhelming evidence against him, until as recently at 2016).
What purpose does it really serve to remind audiences that monsters live among us? It’s a message that’s forced on us on a near daily basis. Not a single one of Bryant’s victims is named in the film, and while a title card at the end explains how attempts to reform Australian gun control have ultimately been unsuccessful, Kurzel offers no answers as to why. Although the film avoids depicting any act of violence (aside from that which Nitram inflicts on his father and a shooting we hear but don’t see) its sympathies seem strangely weighted in favour of a man who showed none to the people he murdered.
Published 18 Jul 2021
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