In 1996, Martin Bryant took the lives of 35 people and wounded 23 others in a tourist site near Port Arthur, Tasmania – it was the worst massacre in modern Australia’s history committed by a single individual. Bryant later pled guilty in court, and is today still serving his 35 life sentences. Importantly, the event led to a complete revaluation of gun control laws across Australia, as well as the formation of the National Firearms Agreement, restricting private ownership of rifle and shotgun weapons.
This is the story of that killer, only here his name is “Nitram” – “Martin” spelled backwards. It is a deliberate reversal, for reasons of anonymity or separation from the incident, with deeper implications for Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) himself, whose odd name provided fodder for childhood bullies. There is something deeply strange about Nitram, whose wild and disturbed antics manifest almost playfully, and often in response to the cruelty of others. He is unable to fit into this world or particular community: a spare puzzle piece without any clear place or purpose.
Nitram lives with his parents – mother (Judy Davis) and father (Anthony LaPaglia) – who endure his disturbed behaviour as a fact of life. His mother, in particular, bears him as an eternal punishment, and this has bred bitterness, resentment and a streak of sadism within her. One especially vivid memory recounted – of Nitram hiding from his mother in a supermarket, only to reappear in the car, laughing at her pain – simmers with complex emotions. His good-cop father is more optimistic, planning on setting up a Bed-and-Breakfast site that Nitram will help run.
Justin Kurzel’s film – in the tradition of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – freely studies this most controversial and sensitive of topics, though without sensationalising the pain of others. The film is none the weaker by showing everything but the massacre itself, offering a nuanced pre-history that mainstream Hollywood rarely permits. There is nothing gratuitous or indulgent about this miniature drama, despite the accusations levelled against it, and this is something to be applauded by all involved.
A dark and unsettling insight into the origins of evil.
Released exclusively in cinemas nationwide on 1 July 2022
DIRECTOR: Justin Kurzel
STARS: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia
RUNTIME: 112 minutes