Justin Kurzel’s Nitram (2021) exists in the same universe as Snowtown Murders (2011). Despite a decade-long gap between the two, the Australian director returns to telling a true crime story with an arresting style and continuous tension.
In 1996, a mass shooter arrived at Tasmania’s Port Arthur on a bright day to kill 35 people in cold blood.
Before director Justin Kurzel arrives at this tragic point, we’re thrown into one cell with Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones) – a troubled young man who lives with his parents. Nitty, as some refer to the boy, has a thing for fireworks that he liked to play with as a kid – even despite an accident he suffered years ago. Like a human ticking bomb, Nitram tries very hard to fit in, alas his dangerous hobbies are worrying other parents, eventually leaving Nitty even more ostracized and left to ponder his negative thoughts.
Kurzel understands how to navigate stories about innocence being morphed into contempt and destruction. Instead of betting on the contrast of a pitch-perfect family that stores dark secrets, Nitram (2021) collects moments that seem insignificant on the surface, but ones that leave deep wounds that shape the unhinged mind of a killer. Although left outside of the camera’s lenses, the director makes it abundantly clear that evil is born even when good intentions are in the vicinity.
That is mostly the job of Nitty’s Dad (Anthony LaPaglia) – a soft-hearted man whose faith in his son’s chances at being a fit for society is captivating. In a particularly crushing scene, Dad takes Nitram to a farm that one day will be theirs. While making plans about milking cows, catering to farm animals, and building a paradise for themselves, writer Shuan Grant and director Justin Kurzel patiently observe the appearance of a desperate need to shelter the boy from the world. Or, what’s even more tragic, to shelter the world from the boy.
Henceforth Nitram (2021) isn’t a study of a dysfunctional family like the unforgettable We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). However, while Dad tends to absolve Nitram of the innocent sins, it’s Judy Davis, who plays Mum, that embodies the stricter counterargument. One cannot deny her own kind of worry and care for the son, despite the walls built between the two. If Snowtown Murders (2011) was indeed a study of a healthy mind pushed over the brink of insanity, Nitram (2021) captures the efforts of pulling someone up from the abyss of no return.
There’s a fourth actor that may as well be the key element of the puzzle. While knocking from door to door in his fruitless search for a lawn mowing gig, Nitram encounters Helen (Essie Davis) – an eccentric woman who inherited a fortune but – just like the boy – prefers to exist in the peripheral parts of society. A bond established by accident becomes the only real chance of getting out of the rabbit’s hole for Nitram. Essie Davis crafts a uniquely compelling character whose brief appearance carries the same significance for the protagonist as Mahershala Ali’s performance in Moonlight (2016). Helen understands Nitram on a deep, emotional level and embraces the bizarre behaviors that others may see as threatening or discouraging.
All the cogs in the machine of Nitram (2021) work smoothly because of the incredible amount of acting talent on the display. Caleb Landry Jones possesses the rare gift of seamlessly switching from menacing to warm within seconds, thus making Nitram an antagonist that’s not singularly malefic. Going as far as to say that he’s likable may be too much, but Jones knows which strings to pull to ease the harsh criticism of his character and play the card of “he’s not entirely beyond saving“. The actor also captures the almost invisible moment when Nitram becomes so gravely fascinated with guns that the tragedy done at his hand becomes inevitable.
Caleb Landry Jones shares screen time with a brilliant cast of supporting actors. Thanks to a perfect understanding of Shaun Grant’s script, each character’s given a moment to shine without the need to outshine anyone else. Accolades are well-earned by Essie Davis, Judy Davis, and Anthony LaPaglia. Judging by the quality of their collective work, Justin Kurzel’s skill to shape full-bodied characters and bring out the best of the actors on set is out of the question. Such prominent directorial work was also seen in his previous projects, including the divisive Macbeth (2015).
Justin Kurzel also escapes the trap of making a film that’s too obvious. The script keeps us invested through various moments when not everyone’s given up on Nitram yet, up to the point when the boy begins a harrowingly methodological process of preparing. Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009) comes to mind here, a striking film in which the Quebecois director crafted a mostly silent reenactment of a shooting in Montreal, preceded by the same meticulous process.
With a familiar design of a slow-burn, semi-documentary film, Justin Kurzel takes his time to build a compelling case in Nitram (2021). There’s more interest in the mechanics of arriving at the tragic conclusion to doing such a horrific thing rather than the act itself. With utmost respect to the lives lost and destroyed forever, Kurzel once again leaves viewers with a pessimistic vision of a world where one’s fate always comes true – in spite of the efforts of the good spirits that try to alter that future.