Justin Kurzel may have a taste for dark, unhappy subjects, but he is a cut above most contemporary Australian directors. His first feature, Snowtown (2011), told the true story of serial killer, John Bunting, and those he drew into his orbit. It was a brutal but amazingly sophisticated debut.
Ten years on, Kurzel and scriptwriter, Shaun Grant, have returned to the dark side of Australian suburbia, with an even more controversial subject. Nitramexamines the life of mass murderer, Martin Bryant, in the lead-up to the Port Arthur massacre of 28 April 1996, in which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded. It’s a movie many believe should never have been made. For Kurzel’s critics the event is still too painful to talk about, a wound from which Tasmania has yet to recover.
Those who are most vehemently opposed to the movie swear they won’t be going to see it. Should the rest of us follow suit? Does the film sensationalise or mythologise Bryant? is there anything valuable to be gained in poring over the killer’s life? Audiences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival had no qualms, giving Nitram a seven-minute standing ovation. They weren’t applauding a glamorous or sympathetic picture of Martin Bryant, a character who instinctively gives everyone the creeps. No-one in the movie uses Bryant’s first name, referring to him only as “Nitram”, a despised nickname which is Martin spelled backwards.
American actor, Caleb Landry-Jones, is conspicuously more homely than the real Bryant, whose boyish good looks belied his mental and social deficiencies. For Landry-Jones the challenge was to capture a personality with zero empathy. He received the Best Actor award in Cannes for his ability to conjure this inner deadness.
Nitram begins with a piece of newsreel footage featuring the real Bryant as a little boy confined to a hospital bed because of a mishap with fireworks. When he’s asked the Dorothy Dix question about whether he’s ever going to play with crackers again, and says “Yes”, we can see right away there’s a problem.
First impressions are borne out when we meet the twenty-something version of Bryant, with long, greasy blonde hair and flithy dungarees. He’s still living with his mum and dad, and still playing with fireworks. His mother (Judy Davis), is fed up, and tries to impose a semblance of order on her intractable son. The father, (Anthony LaPaglia), is a weak, kind-hearted man prepared to indulge the boy. Martin seems indifferent to everything and everyone, aside from his own fixations.
One of them is a surfboard. Martin imagines himself riding the waves, but his mother tells him it’s all a fantasy. He’ll go on to buy a board and display it as a fixture on the roof of his car, but his one attempt to surf is a predictable disaster.
The pattern is constantly repeated. Bryant would like to have friends, to be accepted and loved, but he doesn’t have the faintest idea how to go about it. He can’t spend time with another person without doing something strange and repellent. He doesn’t understand why he is shunned, and grows progressively more needy and resentful.
To make some money he goes around offering to cut people’s grass. He has little success until he knocks at the door of a rambling old mansion, and meets Helen (Essie Davis), an eccentric heiress in her 50s, who shares her home with innumerable dogs and cats, and spends her days listening to Gilbert and Sullivan records.
It takes one misfit to recognise another, and Helen takes a shine to Martin. The two become inseparable companions. Soon Bryant has decided to move in with Helen, an arrangement that upsets and confuses his parents. It’s not a sexual relationship, it’s not even mother-and-child. The two of them are pals, mutually incapable of acting like adults. But Bryant is a dangerous friend.
I won’t give the story away, but suffice to say, Bryant inherits Helen’s house and money and is able to indulge his fantasies. To steamline the story the filmmakers have made a few strategic excisions. Helen’s elderly mother has disappeared, as has Martin’s sister. The spending sprees and overseas trips are condensed and largely ignored. The plot has been pared back in such a way that a sequence of events might be represented by a single scene.
Bryant’s new affluence allows him to indulge his fascination with guns, and he sets about acquiring an arsenal. This leads to one of the most chilling scenes – a visit to the local gun shop, where, without a licence, he is allowed to buy a semi-automatic rifle and a shot gun. The salesman is slightly put out, but asks: “You’re not intending to register these guns, are you?” When Bryant says “No”, he closes the deal, telling him: “There’s no way I could have sold you a hand gun.”
This is as close as the film gets to making a statement about gun control. Kurzel has only to show the ease with which a disturbed individual can acquire a collection of deadly weapons. It’s now history that in the aftermath of the Port Arthur shootings the Howard government passed sweeping new anti-gun legislation, but the titles at the end of the movie tell us that no state or territory has stuck with these laws, and there are now many more guns in circulation than in 1996.
The gun message will not be lost on viewers in the United States, particularly Landry’s home state of Texas, where just about anyone can buy a gun and walk around with it in full view.
And yet it’s not the guns, or even the knowledge of looming atrocity as the movie ends, that makes the most lasting impression. It’s the steady accumulation of tawdry detail: the surfboard; the low burble of daytime TV; the tinkling piano; the Taurus neckcharm Bryant fingers; the fractured, repetitive bursts of Gilbert and Sullivan on the stereo; and finally, the fruitcup he eats in the Broad Arrow Café, each bite counting down the moments until he pulls out a gun.
In Snowtown it was the family meals that left one squirming, and in Nitram, there’s a similar feeling of desolation whenever Martin sits down with his mother and father. They find him exasperating and a bit scary. He is attached to them in his own weird way, but also sees them as obstacles that prevent him from having whatever he wants.
The Bryants are not the poorest of families, but their lives are full of sadness and frustration. Everyone in this film looks worn and shabby. The hand-held camera peers intrusively into all the nooks and crannies. The interiors and dull and grainy, the exteriors muted by a pervasive sense of melancholy. The sadness is not simply in mournful anticipation of Bryant’s actions, it springs from a sense of hopelessness.
Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis are tremendous in their very different roles as the parents, the former as a fragile, broken man barely holding it together; the latter as the steely backbone of the family, who may flare up angrily at her son but always tries to mend the rift. When Helen tells her that Martin is “a special man”, the mother replies with an anecdote which ends with him laughing at her pain. She knows her son is the mere shell of a human being with no ability to relate to others and no capacity for love. No-one, however, could have ever imagined the method Bryant would find to alleviate the dull ache of his own hollowness.
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Written by Shaun Grant
Starring Caleb Landry-Jones, Anthony LaPaglia, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Sean Keenan, Rick James
Australia, rated MA 15+, 112 mins
Limited theatrical release, then streaming on Stan
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 October, 2021