“Nitam,” a dramatization of the events leading up to the 1996 massacre at Port Arthur, Tasmania, that killed 35 people and wounded 23 others, mines the nihilism of its title character in an attempt to shed light on a senseless act.
In his telling of the story, Australian director Justin Kurzel has made a deeply unsettling film but not a violent one. He replaces the violence of the tragic real-life event with the uneasy trajectory of a killer in the making.
Known as Nitram—the movie never uses his real name—Caleb Landry Jones plays the title character as a twenty-something, impulsive, detached loner who lashes out at the slightest provocation. His mother (Judy Davis) is worn down after years of dealing with his antisocial and unpredictable behavior, but his father (Anthony LaPaglia) attempts to find a coping mechanism in compassion.
They are given a reprieve of sorts when wealthy recluse Helen (Essie Davis) hires him to cut her lawn and invites him to move in. She treats him kindly and becomes a stabilizing force in his life. When she passes away suddenly, followed by the death of his father weeks later, Nitam is cut loose with a large inheritance courtesy of Helen’s largess.
Nitram’s childhood fascination with fireworks translates into a love of firearms as an adult. In the film’s most chilling scene he purchases powerful automatic weapons from a gun shop owner only too happy to make a sale.
It is the first tangible step toward infamy.
The events of April 1996 are not portrayed in the film. In fact, there is very little violence on display. Instead, Kurzel has crafted a bleak but effective portrait of mundane evil. Jones embodies the character, playing him as a cypher with a deep well of rage. It isn’t a showy performance. It’s dark, hard to read and even harder to understand. Alienated, he is devoid of empathy or compassion, a ticking bomb ready to explode. It’s disturbing character work, so carefully rendered that, knowing how the story ends, will make your skin crawl.
There is little that is sensational or exploitive in “Nitram’s” storytelling but I had to wonder why a movie, even one that doesn’t name the killer by name, exists.
It’s one thing not to utter his name, it’s another to make a movie about a real-life man who became a monster, shattering dozens of families in the process. “Nitram” in no way glorifies him, but neither does it shed that much light on the hows and whys of his unspeakable acts. It is a well-made film that prefers to hammer home its indelible message of gun control but in its very existence provides an uncomfortable notoriety to someone best forgotten.