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Nitram

Year: 2021
Production Co: GoodThing Productions
Director: Justin Kerzel
Writer: Shaun Grant
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis

There was no doubt some sentiment by writer Shaun Grant or director Justin Kurzel somewhere in the film's production notes or subsequent interviews that this film wasn't about Port Arthur.

And because the film ends (apart from one single short scene) as soon as Nitram/Martin (Caleb Landry Jones) pulls an AR-15 out of the bag full of guns he's carried into Port Arthur's Broad Arrow Cafe, there's some weight to the argument. It's about the killer Martin Bryant, not what he did. And unlike his unfortunate victims, we get to look away when he goes on his rampage.

Until then we just see the human face of mental illness and familial (and a little bit of) systemic failure to identify and help the men who commit mass murder before they do.

So called because of an old school nickname, Nitram is the classic case of what we'd call an incel today; a young man there's definitely something 'off' about – maybe he's genuinely a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

With little acknowledgement of social grace or boundaries and given to fits of anger, Nitram might even be autistic, and who under Landry's (another of the few American actors who've convincingly done an Australian accent) distinctive features and baleful stare, might be dangerous.

He lives with his parents, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, and while his mum is a little bit steelier, there's a hint his feckless Dad is part of Nitram's problem, having failed to show him a decent older male role model.

They both seem slightly scared of Nitram, rescuing him from various cultural fuax pas (like collecting kids from his former high school near the boundary line to set fireworks off with them), but it's his Dad that breaks down the most.

In one scene, maybe sick of what he perceives as his father's weakness as the latter lays on the couch, depressed after a setback in life, Nitram pounds his fists on him ceaselessly, the older man crying, pleading with Nitram to stop and promising to get up like he's a little kid.

Some of the weirdest turns in the plot which I found hard to believe were actually true. Pushing his mower around the neighbourhood in a slightly pathetic attempt to earn some money, Nitram comes across Helen (Essie Davis), an eccentric shut-in who's as much of a misfit as Nitram is in her own way, a bond quickly forming.

Helen is either too nice by half or just a fruitcake like him who can't see what a boiling cauldron of hate and frustration he is, but he's soon living with her and her gaggle of dogs in her broken down mansion, living off a fortune thanks to her family's ownership of a state lottery system.

But whatever redemption she offers Nitram (which admittedly isn't much), he's robbed of it in shocking circumstances – I don't know if it's been established that Nitram caused what happened like the movie depicts but without Helen he's adrift again, searching for any kind of connection. However much his father represented that, he's soon out of Nitram's life too in equally miserable circumstances.

I also found it hard to believe he managed to take so many overseas trips by himself – all paid for because Helen leaves him everything she has in her will – but apparently Bryant really did that too. But one thing it does is (maybe unwittingly) reveal what Grant's script and Kurzel's direction possibly embellished somewhat on real life.

Nitram is so clueless about the world and so childlike you can't imagine he manages to organise and execute something to complicated and organised as an overseas trip without ending up homeless, broke or dead somewhere.

Jones is more terrifying than the most effective movie villain – maybe because of what you know he's going to do, giving the proceedings an air of doom not unlike movies about 9/11 – but maybe just because of his scraggly hair, skittish eyes and simmering undercurrent of threat. It's a fantastic role played by a very good actor.

Kurzel too manages a very assured tone, one he perfected in his breakout feature Snowtown, and he remains one of the best directors Australia has. You won't enjoy watching it, but it should be experienced because of both the technical and creative artistry.

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