Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writer: Shaun Grant
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia
By Calum Cooper
“Nitram” (2021) is a disturbing film by design, yet even as I write this I’m unsure if this is to the film’s benefit or detriment. It is somewhat reminiscent of Todd Phillips‘ “Joker” (2019), a film that, while technically well crafted, had a message that I felt was fundamentally misguided and false, thus leading me to ultimately dislike the overall product. While “Nitram” does have more nuances, and certainly isn’t condoning its anti-hero’s actions the way that “Joker” seemed to do so, its depiction of its subject matter leaves an unclean feeling that has this reviewer feeling conflicted on the overall product.
Caleb Landry Jones plays a man named Nitram, a fictional stand in for real life Australian mass murderer Martin Bryant (note that Nitram is Martin spelled backwards). He is a 20 something year old man with an all-too-keen interest in fireworks, and a level of apathy that worries his parents. His mother (Judy Davis) is a strict but loving woman who watches Nitram like a hawk, while his father (Anthony LaPaglia) is more laidback, but suffers from stress. Both of their personalities seem to have been shaped from looking after their difficult child. When Nitram meets the wealthy Helen (Essie Davis), he finally sees an opportunity to move out. But this change, and the resulting consequences, slowly draws back the curtain on just how broken and disturbed Nitram is.
A lot of films have depicted awful people, and how their actions cause distress to others and themselves. As Robert McKee once said, “likeability is no guarantee for audience investment.” But there are usually grounded themes or insights that keep the story enticing. For example, Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980) showcases the destructive, all-consuming nature of toxic masculinity, using its real life subject matter as its case study. “Nitram” has some interesting observations regarding how circumstances and bad, or plain insecure, teaching can create a monster from the ashes of another’s mistakes. It even showcases some of the twisted ways Nitram sees the world in a way that’s – god forbid – somewhat identifiable. This is particularly true of the companionship he sees in Helen, a similarly lonely figure who has become detached from the world around her, and especially in an exchange where his dad fails to secure a house payment and breaks down. It is a crucial, and oddly compelling, moment that shows a level of care towards his father, despite Nitram’s seemingly uncaring nature.
However, the choice to make this a loose biopic on a real person is one that ultimately harms the film the more I think about it. Had this been a fully fictional story, then it might have held the power of something like Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” (2014), another film about a despicable human being that maintains engagement through empathy, and then morbid curiosity. Yet, the background knowledge that this person actually existed, and caused real harm to real people, is one that makes many of the film’s points, however nuanced or interesting, arguably null and void. It feels like a backfire at best, and horribly exploitative at worst.
To bring this back to “Joker,” “Nitram” similarly depicts poor mental health as being the crucial reason, among a plethora of reasons, its main character ended up the way he did. What “Joker” got so catastrophically wrong was its argument of mental health being an excusable get out of jail free card for its character’s actions. “Nitram” does not make the same mistake per se, as it is clear to establish where and when Nitram crosses the line and enters into disgusting territory, but it nonetheless engages with the regressive notion that poor mental health equals dangerous, a tired and blatantly untrue assumption. While poor mental health certainly isn’t an excuse for any kind of toxic action, let alone murder, it is saddening to see director Justin Kurzel, an otherwise gifted filmmaker, approach this matter in such a regressive manner.
The film has plenty going for it from a craftsmanship perspective. There is an atmospheric uneasiness to it that easily immerses the viewer in its intimidating close ups as well as its themes on grief, apathy, and the link between pain and action. It’s a sign of confident direction on Kurzel’s part. Jones’ performance is an engaging one that shows off his range considerably, even if there was the occasional moment that felt unconvincing, such as a moment of anguish in a hospital room. And while its suggestions may be problematic, there is something genuinely intriguing about trying to understand what components made someone into who they are.
However, what solidified my overall rating was a scene towards the end of the film. Prior to his eventual murder spree, Nitram watches news footage of the Dunblane Massacre, a horrific tragedy that occurred in my home country of Scotland. It’s implied that this is what ultimately, or at least partially, inspired Nitram to do what he does. The film certainly lays sufficient groundwork for Nitram’s descent. Yet it occurred to me here that had this film been made with a loose portrayal of the perpetrator of the Dunblane Massacre in Nitram’s place, would I have been entertaining it for even a moment, however well crafted? I highly doubt it. Safe to say, Tasmania’s reaction to the film is more than justified.