NITRAM is a tough film to watch. It’s excellent. Possibly too excellent. I think if I wasn’t Australian, if I didn’t remember the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, it would be just a brilliant true-crime film. But I do, and so there’s an element of misery I bring into the cinema with me.
The Port Arthur Massacre ended with 35 people dead, and 23 people injured. It led to a complete overhaul of Australia’s gun laws. The perpetrator pled guilty at trial, and the judge sealed the evidence. This was probably done to spare the survivors, and the friends and families of the dead. But it also meant that witnesses were denied their day in court, to tell their stories.
And so, NITRAM is an incredibly controversial film. People were concerned it might paint the perpetrator in a sympathetic light. They were worried it might humanise him. So, does it?
Honestly, it’s complicated. The film does follow the events of the perpetrator’s life, in the lead up to the massacre. The events are honestly bizarre, and they are mostly true.
His mother (Judy Davis) is awful. His father (Anthony LaPaglia) is sad. And his best friend is a lonely heiress, played by Essie Davis. She lives in a run down mansion, filled with more dogs than she can take care of. She regularly buys used cars, mostly for the social interaction she gets from the salesmen.
She and ‘Nitram’ become friends. His parents try their best, but they’re pretty hopeless themselves. The depressive world they’ve made for themselves is difficult to watch. ‘Nitram’ is played brilliantly by Caleb Landry Jones, but he’s not really a character you sympathise or identify with.
Yes, he’s miserable. Sure, his parents were overwhelmed. Yes, he was bullied, had a terrible time at school, and lacked direction.
But lots of people had all that. And they didn’t decide to commit a killing spree.
I think this might be part of the reason this film, perhaps more than some other true-crime films, is causing so much hurt. The character of ‘Nitram’ is so unremarkable. He’s not a smart man, or even a particularly competent man.
There’s not a point where if someone had just done something, everything would have changed. There’s not a way for people to have survived this event. True-crime often makes us imagine ourselves as the main character. How would have I stopped a school shooter? How would have I escaped a serial killer?
The character of ‘Nitram’ is sad and pathetic. But not in a way that makes you root for him. Just in a way that you desperately wish he’d not made his life everyone else’s problem. It’s like watching a bus crash: you just want the ending to be different, just this one time.
As I said, NITRAM is an incredible film. But it’s an uncomfortable watch. There are no answers, only a feeling of rising dread. The ending shows no violence on screen, but we know what happened that day. And after the film is done, you’ll feel uncomfortable, stressed, and very anxious. No catharsis, just a heightened state of loss.
It’s honestly brilliant.