At a crucial moment in this quietly harrowing drama from Justin Kurzel, director of Snowtown, Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang, a young man walks into a gun shop with a bag of money and walks out with an arsenal of firearms. What’s remarkable is how horrifyingly matter of fact the scene is, with its casual talk of throwing in ammo rounds and “nice” carrying bags. Yes, there’s a slightly sticky moment when the young man reveals that he doesn’t have a licence, but that’s circumvented when he agrees not to register his purchases. So the deal is done; hands are shaken, money is exchanged (“a pleasure, thanks for your business”) and lethal weapons are sent out into a world where no one is safe.
For most of its running time, Nitram is not about gun control – or at least, it doesn’t appear to be. Instead, it presents a thoughtfully intimate account of the belated coming-of-age struggles of a misfit loner, superbly portrayed by Caleb Landry Jones, who earned best actor accolades at the 2021 Cannes film festival and at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards, where Kurzel’s film swept the board. Mockingly nicknamed Nitram (his name reversed), this spiky, emotionally unstable figure lives with his mum and dad in mid-1990s suburban Australia. His father (played in almost unrecognisably downtrodden form by Anthony LaPaglia) loves his son, but struggles to contain his reckless impulses, such as giving lighted fireworks to children at the local school. Meanwhile, his mum (Judy Davis, wearing her jagged nerves on the outside) exudes flinty exasperation and resigned defeat at her wayward offspring’s behaviour.
When Nitram clumsily embarks on a lawnmowing business, he is greeted by hastily closed doors, until he meets Helen (Essie Davis). An eccentric woman of wealth with a menagerie of dogs and cats, Helen buys the overgrown boy clothes and a car and allows him to move in – making the break from his parents. For a while, this odd couple seem to be enjoying an off-kilter Harold and Maude-style relationship. But the honeymoon period cannot last, and Nitram’s destructive urges soon leave him alone in the house, with his thoughts and her money. Meanwhile, his dad’s dreams of setting up a rural bed and breakfast suffer a setback that sends him spiralling into depression, to the horror of his son.
Screenwriter Shaun Grant, who previously collaborated with Kurzel on Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang, began working on the script for Nitram, which he calls “an anti-gun film”, after being in the US in 2018 in the wake of two mass shootings and seeing a former athlete on TV vigorously defending his right to own a semi-automatic hunting rifle. Recalling the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, which still hung like a dark cloud over his home country (it was the worst mass shooting in Australian history, leaving 35 people dead and 23 others wounded), Grant resolved to write a script around that still-raw wound. It would, he hoped, cause “the audience, especially those pro-gun, to sit with a character who clearly should not have access to firearms and watch as they are so easily granted access to them”.
For better or worse, Nitram, which aroused great consternation in Tasmania for daring – or perhaps presuming – to dramatise such horrific recent history, does exactly that. It places its audience in the deeply uncomfortable position of watching a young man’s mental health issues accelerate inexorably from a personal problem to a national catastrophe by the insane addition of easily accessible guns. Impressively, the film avoids portraying its central character – a stranger to remorse who replaces empathy with aggression – as either monstrous or sympathetic. He may have suffered taunting bullying as a kid, but when the surfers with whom he pathetically hopes to ingratiate himself give him the cold shoulder, we understand why.
This is as it should be for a film that ultimately is not about its titular character (or his unnamed real-life inspiration), whose crimes are kept offscreen. We never see the devastation he wreaks, nor do we need to. All the horror the film needs to tell its story is there in that gun shop.