Writer: Shaun Grant
Director: Justin Kurzel
Rendering real life events on screen is a delicate balance of honouring the facts and reality of the people being depicted and finding a dramatic frame or structure for the story. That becomes even more important when lives were lost, and Justin Kurzel’s new film Nitram, in the Official Competition at the London Film Festival, finds a powerful way to tell the story of a mass shooting in 1996 without glamourising the event or its perpetrator.
Martin known as “Nitram” is a child in a man’s body, unable to fully control his emotions or impulses. When he meets wealthy local artist Helen, Martin moves out of the home he shares with his exhausted parents and into Helen’s large animal-filled house thinking he has finally found a caring friend. Her refusal to buy him a proper gun triggers a series of domestic tragedies that create in Martin a terrible urge to feel powerful.
Kurzel is a great director of psychological shifts and changing narrative tension that reposition with the motivation of the central character. It is what made his 2015 Macbeth so breath-taking, and he brings that craft to Nitram which also has no sense of inevitability from the start but watches Martin pass a series of possible stopping points until the direction of travel is no longer controllable and Nitram is a deeply affecting film for it.
The occasional recourse to violence is well managed, a child who loves fireworks grows into a man incapable of recognising the risk his behaviour poses and a slow thread develops in which the audience learns, as Martin does, how much he enjoys seeing the fear and pain he creates in others. It builds on an insightful story his mother tells Helen. What starts as selfish and demanding behaviour, turns into tantrums and later to violent outbursts directed first at inanimate objects and later at the people around him.
And in a film that avoids sensation, Kurzel only shows the days and hours leading up to the attack in the closing moments, by which time a devastating unavoidability has crept into the story when Martin is triggered by a TV news report about Dunblane. Not showing the event itself deliberately takes away from Martin’s infamous status and Kurzel well avoids feeble attempts to dramatise an event that so many in Australia must remember all too clearly, lingering only on his mother’s face as she contemplates her conscience in the closing seconds.
Caleb Landry Jones becomes immersed in the role of Martin in a brilliantly disturbing but also layered performance. Martin can be sweet and thoughtful, responding to Helen’s kindliness and his parents’ frustration with him with a palpable hurt, but Landry Jones keeps the performance just on the edge of something more dangerous so as Martin’s isolation increases so too does his separation from empathy or consideration for others, seeking only to satisfy his need to harm.
There is meaningful support from Anthony LaPaglia as a father reaching the end of his reserves and especially from Judy Davis as Martin’s watchful mother who buries her own emotions, wearied by life and waiting for the inevitable. The film never explores why or how Martin became such an expert marksman but in what is an affecting study of character and circumstance, Kurzel’s film about gun control in Australia leaves a potent chill as the credits role.
Nitram is screening at the London Film Festival.