Nitram review: Port Arthur massacre drama asks the necessary questions about gun violence

Dir: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia. 15, 112 minutes

“We don’t understand it. And I guess we never will,” says the police officer on TV, somewhere in the background of Justin Kurzel’s dark-hearted new drama Nitram. The footage is real – a clipped news report that aired in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 1996, in which a gunman shot dead 16 pupils and a teacher at a primary school outside Stirling, Scotland. Its horror was deemed unfathomable. Two new Firearm Acts were swiftly installed, outlawing the private ownership of most handguns within the UK.

Kurzel’s film traces the weeks and days that preceded a second mass shooting – a month later, on the other side of the world in Port Arthur, Tasmania. But it quietly challenges those words, which are so often (and understandably) uttered in the shadow of great acts of violence: “we don’t understand”. It’s a notion that underpins so much of the true-crime genre, a self-contained industry pumping out modern-day bogeymen to satiate the public’s morbid fascinations. We transform killers into deific totems of evil, all frighteningly unknowable in their nature. But you can boil down Kurzel’s entire filmography to the question of how and why violence is such an enshrined part of the masculine myth – it fuels the exacting ugliness of his 2011 debut Snowtown, about a string of murders that plagued his native Australia in the Nineties, and the hellish passion of his 2015 take on Macbeth.

Nitram is a stark, difficult, but deeply reflective film that asks sincerely why we describe these crimes as incomprehensible at the very same time as we watch the same patterns unfold, again and again. Kurzel never names the perpetrator – a then-28-year-old man who killed 35 people and is currently serving 35 life sentences with no possibility of parole. The character depicted is only ever referred to by a fictionalised nickname, “Nitram”, or as “the lone gunman”. The violence he committed is never shown on screen. The focus, instead, is on the countless warning signs that littered the path to that one, terrible day – all of them either actively ignored or witnessed by individuals who were entirely unequipped to intervene.

We watch Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) walk into a gun store. He hands over $8,000 stuffed into a duffel bag – with no gun licence and no intent to register the weapons he’s purchasing. The store’s owner reassures him that everything’s fine, repeatedly muttering the words “too easy” under his breath. On paper, that sounds far too pointedly ironic. But, in Kurzel’s film, the scene’s delivered so casually that it plays out like a nauseating, slow-motion free fall. Those who hand the weapons over are the only people Nitram outrightly judges. In fact, the director seems almost uncharacteristically restrained here, his wide and empty frames placing him (and arguably us) in the role of observers as opposed to storytellers.

The parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, both choked up with quiet desperation) are at a total loss, unable to handle a child who seems so dangerously understimulated by the world around him. His only preoccupation is the fireworks he sets off, night after night, in the backyard. When Nitram suddenly enters the orbit of an older woman named Helen (Essie Davis) – a former actress existing in a Miss Havisham-esque stasis, surrounded by dogs and mouldy wallpaper – we’re briefly allowed to find hope in this meagre connection between two living ghosts. But Kurzel, working off a screenplay by frequent collaborator Sean Grant, pushes back aggressively on the idea that this man was simply misunderstood. Those who are gracious with him to the point of ignoring his violent impulses pay the highest price.

And Jones, who's made a career of livewire performances in films such as Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, refuses to let his audience rely on simple-minded pathology. It’s a ferocious performance, but one that’s tackled with commendable nuance – there’s a stark refusal here to simply reduce the character down to a set of trademarks slipped on like a mask. Kurzel ends his film with the reminder that, though Australia, like the UK, was quick to reform its gun laws in response to the massacre, no state or territory since has been fully compliant. As Nitram asks, has the country really done what it needs to stop this from happening again?

‘Nitram’ is in cinemas from 1 July