Review: ‘Nitram,’ starring Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia

April 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Nitram”

Directed by Justin Kurzel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tasmania, Australia, from 1987 to 1996, the dramatic film “Nitram” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, a troubled young man nicknamed Nitram goes on a downward spiral before committing heinous acts of murder.

Culture Audience: “Nitram” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that take a dark and disturbing look into the mind of a mass murderer.

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Whenever a scripted movie is made about a notorious murderer, there’s a fine line between trying to understand what caused this person to kill and exploiting/glorifying the situation without any empathy for those harmed by murder. “Nitram,” which is based on real events, walks that fine line. As a psychological portrait, “Nitram” has top-notch acting and succeeds at showing the tragic results of enabling toxic people. As a well-rounded story that gives importance to the real-life murder victims, this drama falls very short.

“Nitram” has absolutely no regard for the real-life victims of the 1996 Port Arthur gun-shooting massacre in Tasmania, Australia—a tragedy that killed 35 people, wounded 23 people, and was caused by a lone gunman, whose name will not be mentioned in this review. It’s the movie’s biggest failing, but one could argue that’s because “Nitram” is told from the point of view of the murderer, who obviously had a complete disregard for the people whose lives that he destroyed. Fortunately, “Nitram” does not glorify this murderer but instead responsibly takes the approach (and shows in disturbing ways) that this horrific murder spree might have been prevented if better care had been taken to get help for the mental health problems of the murderer.

Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, “Nitram” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where “Nitram” star Caleb Landry Jones (who plays the title character) won the prize for Best Actor. Released in Australia in 2021, “Nitram” went on to win 11 out of its 15 nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director and all the actor/actress prizes) at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. All of these industry accolades certainly have their merits.

However, it still doesn’t erase the fact that filmmakers doing scripted movies about real-life murders are much more inclined to want to make movies about the murderers instead of the victims. It sends mixed messages when it’s been proven many times that several of these murderers commit these heinous crimes because they want the publicity and the attention, including movies or TV shows made about them. In many ways, “Nitram” doesn’t really help in the healing process for loved ones of the murder victims.

To be clear: “Nitram” rightfully puts almost all of the blame on the killer for this mass murder spree. However, the movie is also a scathing indictment of those who saw all the warning signs that he was a ticking time bomb, and they chose to do nothing or look the other way. It might be open to debate how accurately the women in Nitram’s life are portrayed in this movie, but they are depicted as his biggest enablers, who have some apparent signs of mental illness too.

“Nitram” (which takes place in Tasmania, Australia) opens with an audio recording of a boy being interviewed about setting off firecrackers in an incident where he accidentally burned himself. The unidentified female interviewer asks the boy if he will still play with firecrackers. If she was expecting him to say no, because he learned his lesson, she’s in for a rude awakening. Without hesitation, the boy says that he will continue to play with firecrackers.

That boy, whose nickname is Nitram, grows up to be a troubled, young adult loner (played by Jones), who lives with his parents and who still sets off firecrackers and ignores neighbors’ complaints about this dangerous activity. Later, Nitram develops a fascination for shooting guns at random targets. Except for a few childhood flashbacks, “Nitram” takes place from 1987 to 1996, during the years when Nitram was his late teens to late 20s.

Near the beginning of the movie, the adult Nitram is shown to be a major nuisance in the neighborhood, but his unnamed mother (played by Judy Davis) also ignores people’s complaints about him. When a neighbor yells at Nitram to stop setting off firecrackers, Nitram’s mother calmly appears at the front door of the family house, and she tells Nitram that dinner is ready. This dinner table scene is a microcosm of the dynamics between these three family members.

Nitram’s mother is smothering, domineering, and at times a little fearful in her relationship with Nitram. Nitram’s unnamed father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) is passive, non-confrontational, and trying to be a loving father. Nitram is highly manipulative and aware that he has mental health problems, but he uses his mental illness as both a weapon to harm or scare people, or as a shield to prevent him from connecting with people because he’s afraid of them hurting him.

As an example of how he keeps people off-balance, in the dinner scene, Nitram starts off the meal dressed in overalls. But then, he abruptly leaves the table in the middle of the meal. Nitram comes back to the table wearing nothing but underwear briefs. When he sits back down at the table, his parents say nothing and continue the meal as if they haven’t noticed Nitram’s change of attire. It’s implied that these parents are used to Nitram and his bizarre actions, which they ignore as much as possible.

There are signs that Nitram has arrested development when it comes to his maturity and learning skills. In real life, the killer was diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are shown or hinted at throughout the entire movie. And although “Nitram” doesn’t show his childhood education, it’s implied that in whatever schooling he had with other kids, he was bullied and treated as an outcast.

As a young adult, Nitram tries to show that he’s interested in a hobby. When he sees a surfboard in a store window, he goes home and asks his mother if he can have the surfboard. She refuses to give him the money for it and says, “I love you, but surfing is not for you.”

The movie has a very minor subplot of Nitram trying to befriend a confident and popular surfer named Jamie (played by Sean Keenan), who has a girlfriend named Riley (played by Phoebe Taylor), who meets Nitram at a beach one day. Jamie tries to give dating advice to Nitram, but this advice mostly goes nowhere because Nitram is socially awkward. Most women who encounter Nitram either ignore him or seem a little repulsed by him because he comes across as creepy and weird.

Needless to say, Nitram has trouble holding on to a job, so he lives with his parents while collecting disability benefits. Nitram attempts to earn some money by asking people in the neighborhood if they need yard care services. Most of the people he approaches seem wary of Nitram and his disheveled appearance, so they say no.

However, a lonely, middle-aged eccentric named Helen (played by Essie Davis) says yes and hires Nitram to clean up her backyard. Later, she hires him for more odd jobs and other housework, and he becomes a regular visitor even when he’s not working. Helen, who is single and lives alone, welcomes his company.

Helen is about 20 years older than Nitram. She lives in a run-down house where she has several dogs and a cat. There are indications that she has hoarding tendencies. Helen and Nitram find out they both have a strange sense of humor, so the two of them hit it off almost immediately. At first, they start off as friends, but then they become romantically involved with each other.

Even though she lives in a dilapidated house, Helen is actually a wealthy heiress who is living off of the money she inherited from her late father. It’s information that she doesn’t tell Nitram about right away. But after they become close, he eventually finds out, and it isn’t long before she invites Nitram to move in with her. Nitram eagerly takes this offer and abruptly moves out of his parents’ home.

Later, Nitram becomes fixated on guns. He has a rifle that he shoots at random targets. Helen voices her disapproval and tells Nitram that he can no longer live with her if he’s going to keep any guns in the house. It’s the only time that the movie depicts someone in Nitram’s life actually setting boundaries for him.

However, Nitram has a dangerous habit that Helen sees firsthand, but she dismisses it as harmless. When Nitram is a passenger in a car, he randomly lunges at the car’s driver and starts a physical altercation while the driver fights to maintain control of the car. Even though Helen sees obvious signs that Nitram can be violent, she does nothing to get him help for his mental health. Except for the gun possession, she lets him do whatever he wants inside and outside of her house.

Nitram’s mother vehemently disapproves of Nitram’s relationship with Helen, because Nitram’s mother is suspicious of Helen’s intentions. One of the movie’s best-acted scenes is when Nitram’s parents meet Helen for the first time during an awkward meal at a restaurant. Nitram is also there during the meeting, but Nitram’s mother talks about him as if he isn’t there. Nitram’s mother—who is seething with resentment that Nitram’s attentions are now focused entirely on someone outside of her home—comes right out and asks Helen how Helen thinks of Nitram: “Is he a husband or a son?”

On another occasion, Nitram’s mother tells Helen a disturbing story about something that happened when Nitram was 5 years old. Nitram’s mother had brought him with her when she went shopping at a fabric store. She lost sight of him, and when she saw that she couldn’t find him, she went frantically looking for him. Several people got involved in the search. Nitram was found hiding in the back seat of his mother’s car, knowing that people were looking for him. According to his mother, Nitram could see how distressed she was, but he was laughing at her pain.

And what about Nitram’s father? There’s a scene where he has to pick up an adult Nitram from a schoolyard because Nitram has set off firecrackers in the yard where children (who are about 7 to 10 years old) are playing. The school’s principal is understandably very upset. When Nitram’s father arrives, he profusely says that he’s sorry and that it won’t happen again, but Nitram shows no remorse. When Nitram and his father drive away in the car, he scolds Nitram and tells him to never to set off firecrackers in a school again, but Nitram’s father doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the enormity of what just happened.

During much of the movie, Nitram’s father is preoccupied with getting a bank loan to buy a house to start a bed-and-breakfast business. What happens in this hoped-for sale becomes a catalyst for a lot of what occurs later in the movie. People who know the full story of what happened in real life already know how this bed-and-breakfast sale had a role in the killer’s downward spiral, but it won’t be revealed in this review.

Because all of the cast members give such realistic performances, “Nitram” is worth watching so viewers can get an up-close and personal look at the unraveling of this family, and how it all culminated in the horrific tragedy that happened in Port Arthur, Tasmania, on April 28 and April 29, 1996. It was Australia’s largest gun-shooting massacre committed by one person in a 24-hour period. (The movie does not show the gory details of this mass murder.) There are no real heroes in this story, but “Nitram” sounds the alarm for people not to ignore red flags when someone shows obvious signs of becoming a murderer.

IFC Films released “Nitram” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on March 30, 2022, the same date that AMC+ premiered the movie. “Nitram” was released in Australia in 2021.

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