With “Nitram,” which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, Australian director Justin Kurzel set himself up with an impossible task: How do you make a film that is upfront about the media’s role in the radicalization of a mass killer without adding fuel to that same fire? How do you humanize a figure who cared so little for the humanity of others?
If the somber biographical drama — which follows the perpetrator of a 1996 Australian massacre in the lead-up to the event that claimed 35 lives and injured 23 others — never quite resolves those tensions, it also doesn’t really try, instead working them into its very fabric.
Martin Bryant is the real name of the shooter in Port Arthur, Tasmania, though you’ll never once hear it in “Nitram.” The moniker he goes by — his first name spelled backwards, if you hadn’t picked up — is something of a taunt. The central figure hates being referred to by his name, as he makes clear time and time again. In that sense, the film’s title reflects its uneasy relationship with its title character, recognizing his hurt while not quite siding with him either.
You don’t hear his name, but you do see his face, with the film opening on news footage of Bryant as a boy, interviewed from a hospital bed after burning himself with a firecracker. When the off-screen interviewer asks if he’ll stop playing with firecrackers, the boy is unequivocal: No, he says. Why would he?
And thus Kurzel establishes his film’s chilling thesis: The sequence of events that turned a misfit into a monster was neither preordained nor preventable; it was very much all a matter of chance, of the wrong things happening to the wrong person at the worst possible time. In one million other timelines it could have gone different; alas, we live in this one.
At first, recognizing their son’s potential for (self-) harm, the boy’s parents have settled into a good cop/bad cop routine. Dad (Anthony LaPaglia) showers the boy with affection, indulging his whims and laying out a future for the boy running a ranch-house bed and breakfast the family intends to buy. Mother (Judy Davis), on the other hand, plays heel, though we come to understand that her stern tone and chilly mien are there for her own protection as well.
The subject of that near-constant concern is Nitram himself, played with pallid intensity by Caleb Landry Jones. Carrying himself with a doughy, filled-out frame, a mop of stringy blond hair and lips pursed downward in a permanent scowl, the American actor cuts a chilling figure, finding new and interesting notes to play while pulling off a credible Tasmanian twang (credible, admittedly, to these less-than-expert ears).
Shuffling with the shoulders-out, back-pushed-in gait of Donald Duck throughout Kurzel’s dim 1.66 frames, Jones really takes a swing here, embodying a rambunctious character that, in some places, can come off as oddly sweet until he’s all of a sudden not. Such roles have clearly paid dividends for actors in the past, but of course, 1996 was not so long ago, so the full weight and trauma of the real man’s crime will naturally color any reception of the actor’s work.
For its first 70 minutes, “Nitram” sketches out the young man’s support network, which somewhat improbably expands to include the wealthy, Gilbert and Sullivan-obsessed Helen (Essie Davis), a shut-in who invites Nitram to become her (chaste, one assumes) life partner. But that network soon comes apart, due as much to the hands of fate as to those of Nitram, leaving the young man unsupervised, affluent and utterly out to sea.
Such is the state he finds himself in when he walks into a gun store without a permit but with a duffle bag filled with cash. Money talks, in this case doing so through the gun store clerk who peeks into the bag and agrees to sell the disturbed young man $8,000 of weapons and ammunition. “No worries,” it says.
Another brick on this road to ruin is the media. As Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant frame it, the young man might have been radicalized sitting in front of his TV set, watching coverage of another mass shooting in Scotland. As the newscasters label that shooter with all requisite nouns — “an oddball, a misfit, a weirdo” – Nitram’s ears perk, his eyes widen and his mind fills with a new and undeniable idea. A way to be seen, to be known, and … well, to have a biopic about you win acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival.
Of course, the copycat effect and the role the media plays in enabling it is not a problem that can be solved by the making or unmaking of any single film, so kudos to Kurzel and crew for the tight focus they brought to this one, which thankfully leaves the massacre off screen. But the implications — ethical and otherwise — that the film raises are too vast to be papered over with a closing plea for tighter gun control. The sentiment is fair and true and absolutely valid. But delivered as sober end titles at the end of “Nitram,” one can’t help but notice a certain irony in such small white letters barely hiding a much darker abyss.