dir: Justin Kurzel
A film that no-one wanted to see made, other than obviously the people that made it. Yet it won a lot of awards recently, so someone other than the people of Tasmania thought it had to be worth something.
“Too soon” isn’t even the cry, because no amount of time will be enough for the survivors, for those who lost loved ones back in 1996, or the rest of us who were just left stunned. And though I clearly remember that time and what happened, and how we sounded when we talked to each other about it, and though I have seen and done much in life that would stain the souls of most mortal men, even I came into this film wary, worried, anxious.
To say that someone is this nation’s worst killer, who harmed the most people in the shortest expanse of time, is obviously not a worthy title, but it’s one I deeply hope is never taken from this particular, awful man. I never want anything even close to this to ever happen again, here or anywhere else. There are other countries, let’s be fairly obvious, where gun carnage and mass killings are taken to be an unfortunate but necessary reality that should never be used to diminish a citizen’s right to own as many guns as they want, for whatever reason. But that’s not Here. That’s not Australia. We tell ourselves, well, it only happened because of an oversight – our overly permissive laws regarding guns before were only because we never imagined someone could legally possess weaponry like this and use it in such a fashion. I mean, This is Australia!
And yet, you ask yourself, what else would they be for? A weapon that can shoot thousands of bullets in the space of minutes only really has one purpose, and don’t they just sit there full of their dark potential until someone uses them the way God intended?
I had hoped there would not actually be any depiction of the fateful day itself, but Nitram goes into aspects of the day, like, how the massacre started, and it was all too much. But that was the end of the film, and up till then, I’d been sitting there as a tortured ball of stress, willing somehow at the screen with every fibre of my being that the outcome we were obviously leading up to could somehow be different, could somehow be anything else.
But it couldn’t. This is part of our appalling history, and just like how the colonial horrors of Port Arthur from more than a century previous, or any of the brutality across Tasmania can’t be undone by wishing it, nor could this horrible day be undone either.
Nitram opens with a shocking snippet of news footage of the person this film is about, as a child, in hospital after an accident. It’s shocking because it’s shocking to see him as a child, that he existed in documented form well before he became known by all.
He speaks flatly about having hurt himself with fireworks, and when asked by the interviewer as to whether he’s going to avoid fireworks in the future or be more careful in general, if anything he wants to play with fireworks even more now.
It never lets us forget what he’s going to do, but it does remind us that he was a child once. A child that grew up into a man who was pretty much still a child.
Caleb Landry Jones is not a household name, especially in Australia. And why would he be, since he’s from Texas. Before you ask, yes, he does amazingly well with an Australian accent, surprisingly so. I can’t recall another time when an American has done a decent Australian accent. There are a few times when Australian actors seem to fuck it up, too.
Jones plays the reverse-titled character with a mixture of child-like awkwardness, child-like obliviousness and childish malevolence. There are an array of conditions, arrested aspects, development issues, disturbing propensities all on display, but they are well incorporated into the central performance. There’s also longing, a longing for love, or for, from his perspective, a longing for the normality that other people have that he lacks that would allow him to interact with the world as they do.
He has long suffering parents (the formidable Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) who seem exhausted from two decades of trying to keep him calm and safe, and to protect him from a world that will always be unfair to him. But the mother, especially, is depicted as protective, but then as cold and controlling. Shades almost of blaming the mum for the son’s monstrosity… but it feels both simpler and more complex than that.
I would argue that most of the flick, rather than be literal biographical or historically accurate sequence of signposts and signifiers, opts more for a character study, just showing Nitram being Nitram, as he went about his daily life. It never explains why he did what he did, but it does give us a bunch of details about his strange life. It’s up to us as to how we connect the dots, and what meaning the patterns bring.
He wishes he could surf, but his mum won’t let him. He glares at the surfers effortlessly gliding across the water, cutting through the waves with ease, with their adoring girlfriends waiting for them to grow tired, leave the water and return to them. He tries to talk to a girl, doing just that, but she doesn’t even look in his direction. She only has eyes for Jamie (Sean Keenan).
Jamie pops up a few times throughout the movie, not really as an antagonist, but more as someone – the template – for what Nitram wishes he was, or that the world looked at him the way it looks at Jamie. He is less the path not taken, and more what Nitram wishes he could be if he were a completely fundamentally different person.
This wouldn’t be Australia if a guy as depicted didn’t, at some point, wish they were the tall, lean, bronzed blonde surfer dude with the panel van, effortlessly talking to women, effortlessly getting laid, moving through the world without constantly stressing about it. Of a certain age, the only guys that aspiration wouldn’t have been applicable to are the guys who embodied it (at least from our perspective). Difference is, Nitram, most of us never fit that template either, or ever achieved that ease, but we didn’t feel the need to get revenge upon the world in order to feel like we finally achieved something worthwhile.
He falls into a surreal relationship with a much older woman (the always excellent Essie Davis, who’s married to the director), being Helen, heiress to part of the Tattersalls fortune, living in an immense bluestone building, surrounded by dogs, trapped in the past herself. There is a lot of Norma Desmond / Sunset Boulevard / Grey Gardens recluse energy to her, but the performance doesn’t fall into caricature, I hope. She does occasionally go into full Gilbert & Sullivan mode, down to costuming and delirious makeup, but she can at least function in the world, and people cater to her because she’s rich.
We can intuit reasons why Nitram might be drawn to her, yearning for some kind of affection, if not specifically maternal where he’s never felt it before, but there’s also a sad opportunism to it. Whatever affection for her he might have, it doesn’t prevent him from playing his inexplicable steering wheel game when they’re driving, which is just…
The greatest irony is that had their paths never crossed, Nitram would have just remained one of countless incel / men’s rights / anti-vax frustrated jerks who wished all their life to get revenge on the world, but failed, like they fail at everything, because he wouldn’t have had the money to buy the weapons that he did, legally, when it was still possible.
I hesitate to say that there are ‘great’ scenes in this flick, because it’s all an entirely uncomfortable experience about a mass murderer, though there are profoundly illuminating scenes. On Nitram’s birthday, he and his partner Helen, and Nitram’s parents agree to meet at a café. It’s not said outright, but it’s clearly meant to be at Port Arthur (though, thankfully, none of this was filmed at the relevant locations, Geelong having to stand in for Hobart and Port Arthur).
While the mother’s dislike and discomfort with the woman is palpable, instead of this becoming a fight between a controlling mother and a strange woman 30 years older than her boyfriend, it becomes more relevant when she offers a snippet of experience regarding a game of hide and seek she used to play with her son when he was younger.
She explains that after the game went wrong, after suffering an hour or more of terror and misery, she found the boy, laughing at her pain.
I think she’s trying to tell her, and us, that she knows what her son is capable of.
The thing is, we know, lady, we know.
Later on, and in probably the second most harrowing scene in the flick, the mother enlists her son in her endeavour to get his depressed father off of the couch. When Nitram violently ‘encourages’ the father to get mobile, the mother looks on impassively. Are we to think there is something similar between mother and son, something genetic, even?
These are deeply unsettling scenes, in a deeply unsettling movie.
Should it have been made, at all, despite the plaudits, the incredible performances, the intricate level of thought put into crafting this quite affecting, disturbing movie? Well, the same director and screenwriter put together Snowtown all those years ago, and I don’t remember them being accused of cynical opportunism or glamourising mass murder way back then.
If anything, of the many profound differences between the main murderous people depicted, nothing in this flick is meant to glamourise, idealise, justify, excuse or bring us in to their way of thinking. Snowtown deliberately, through its choices with Daniel Henshall’s stunning performance as John Bunting, made him seem far more charismatic and compelling than he ever could have been in real life, because that story needed a beguiling satanic figure in order to explain why other people went along with so many sadistic and monstrous crimes for so long.
Nitram doesn’t need that. It doesn’t even need to explain anything about what happened – with this chap, and his circumstances, it was inevitable, but only in retrospect, because even the people who should have known better couldn’t have predicted what he was going to do. Despite being about something that was arguably even worse than what happened in Snowtown, or Elizabeth, South Australia, it doesn’t need us to see Nitram as anything other than what he was – a manchild out of place in the world who chose to make the world pay for it, who still thinks, to this day, that he’s the one that got the raw deal.
I can’t recommend it to anyone, because it takes a portion of your soul away whenever you peer too deeply into such sorrowful awfulness, but it is (I realise the hypocrisy of these words) an extraordinary film. Caleb Landry Jones’s performance is stunning, and horrifying, and I wish him all the best in life, but please, for our sake and yours, stop playing these complete monsters. It can’t be good for you.
8 times I wish the world… was different, in a lot of ways, out of 10
“There he was. Laughing. Laughing at me. Laughing at my pain. Like it was the funniest thing in the world.” – show me the boy at five, and tell me there was never any hope for a different outcome - Nitram