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'Nitram' is a deeply unsettling portrait of an Australian mass shooter

In <em>Nitram</em>, Caleb Landry Jones plays the man who killed 35 people and wounded 23 others in a 1996 mass shooting in Australia.
IFC Films
In Nitram, Caleb Landry Jones plays the man who killed 35 people and wounded 23 others in a 1996 mass shooting in Australia.

In late April 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 others were wounded after a 28-year-old man went on a shooting rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania. It took less than two weeks after the shooting for Australia to reform its gun laws, and the government wound up buying back and destroying more than 640,000 firearms.

Much of this information appears just before the end credits of Nitram, a coolly observed and deeply unsettling new drama that imagines the weeks and months before the tragedy from the shooter's perspective. The character's real name is never spoken in the movie: Just about everyone calls him "Nitram," a hated childhood nickname contrived by the filmmakers to avoid mentioning the real-life shooter. And he's played in a ferocious, terrifying performance by Caleb Landry Jones.

You may well wonder at this point who needs to see another movie about the making of a mass murderer, even a movie as skillfully acted and directed as this one. I approached Nitram with some trepidation of my own. But even as they've stuck close to the real-life details, the director Justin Kurzel and his screenwriter, Shaun Grant, have taken care not to glorify the perpetrator or exploit his victims. Almost no violence is depicted; the shootings take place entirely off-screen. And Jones' mesmerizing performance inspires more revulsion than pity. Up until the shootings, he plays Nitram as a lonely, alienated and deeply disturbed individual with little capacity for empathy and zero regard for the consequences of his frequent misbehavior.

We first meet Nitram lighting off firecrackers outside the house where he still lives with his parents. The great Judy Davis plays his mom with the cold resignation of someone who knows that her son is beyond saving, though we also see the desperate love beneath her steely gaze. Anthony LaPaglia is equally heartbreaking as Nitram's more lenient, indulgent father.

Before long, Nitram makes a rare friend: a wealthy and eccentric heiress named Helen, played by a terrific Essie Davis. Helen spends her days listening to Gilbert & Sullivanand looking after her many, many dogs in a large house that gives off serious Grey Gardens vibes.

Soon Nitram is living with Helen, who buys him whatever he likes — a new car, new clothes — but balks at his unnerving request to buy him guns. (He already has an air rifle which he uses for target practice.) But when Helen dies suddenly, she leaves her home and her entire fortune to Nitram, enabling him to purchase an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons. The movie lingers uncomfortably in these scenes, underscoring the ease with which anyone in Australia could legally obtain a gun at the time, with no license or background checks required.

Meanwhile, Nitram's psyche continues to unravel. He stops taking the antidepressants he's been on for ages. Troubles with his parents persist, and he's rejected by just about everyone he tries to befriend. Jones has always had the ability to get under your skin in movies like Get Out, and he plays Nitram like an open wound that simply refuses to heal. What makes the characterization so scarily effective is that it doesn't seem to beg for our understanding, let alone our sympathy. We get a few clues as to what may have driven him to his horrific actions, including some brief news coverage of the 1996 school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, an inspiration for the real-life Port Arthur shooter. But the movie seems to concede that the full truth may be unknowable.

Kurzel has shown a fascination with the roots and ripple effects of violence in films like his 2015 Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender, and his earlier true-crime drama The Snowtown Murders, about the Australian serial killer John Bunting. But Nitram is his most restrained and controlled work. We see the depths of parental helplessness in Davis and LaPaglia's superb performances, and Kurzel immerses us in the lush natural beauty of Port Arthur, up until the moment the calm is shattered. By not depicting the shootings, the movie avoids reducing them to a kind of climactic spectacle — a compassionate gesture at the end of this tense and despairing movie.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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