NITRAM is a stunning and disturbing film from Aussie writer-director Justin Kurzel that covers a deeply traumatic and controversial mass shooting in mid-1990s Tasmania. The perpetrator was a man called Martin, who was teased with the nickname Nitram because he was mentally "backward". Indeed, it's a open question what's wrong with Martin. He seems childlike - his mother describes behaviour that seems psychopathic - he's being prescribed drugs for depression - he has an unhealthy obsession with fireworks and guns. What's clear is that his parents love him but also enable him - particularly his dad - and at various points of the film I became angry that he wasn't in a residential care facility rather than out and about in the general community.
The truth is stranger than fiction. This misfit somehow meets an incredibly wealthy eccentric older woman (Essie Davis) and she essentially bankrolls him and takes him in, even though even she draws the line at buying him a gun. As the film develops we see that this newfound freedom and money does not satisfy Martin. He remains severely lonely, unhappy and disturbed. And so we move to the inevitable final act, which is handled delicately and largely off-screen. We are left with harsh questions. Could his parents have prevented this? His doctors? The people he freaked out but who didn't report anything? And would anything have happened if he hadn't had the (mis)fortune of access to wealth, and thanks to Australia's then lax gun laws, a cache of arms?
Caleb Landry Jones won the acting award at Cannes for his performance in NITRAM and it's well deserved. It's incredibly moving and nuanced - at once terrifying and heart-breaking. I was physically wincing in fear, but also believed Martin genuinely loved his mum and particularly his dad. Judy Davis is typically brilliant as Martin's mum and Anthony LaPaglia is heartbreaking as his dad.
I also loved the choice to use a limited claustrophobic aspect ratio that makes us feel trapped by Martin in the hazy summer heat of dusty abandoned rooms. This is arguably Kurzel's most assured and impressive film to date. Kudos to all involved.
NITRAM played Cannes 2021 where Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor. It was released earlier this year in Australia. The film has a running time of 112 minutes.
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