Australians own more guns today than they did in 1996. That year, the country’s largest mass shooting — the Port Arthur Massacre — led the government to swiftly adopt landmark gun control legislation, recalling and destroying 650,000 guns from residents.
That rise in Australian gun ownership is the catalyst behind director Justin Kurzel’s latest film, “Nitram.” The film, which premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, was greeted with controversy when Kurzel first announced it would follow the Port Arthur Massacre. At times excruciating, at others gripping, the drama follows the titular serial killer as he grows up in a suburb of Tasmania with his soon-to-be-suicidal father and an overbearing, cold mother who has trouble accepting Nitram as her own son. Through years of his parents and peers bullying him for his mental illness, audiences watch as Nitram becomes further and further alienated by society. And because the audience knows exactly where this story is going to end, every time Nitram is inconvenienced or in a position where he could easily take power, Kurzel gives us a chilling pause — a space for our expectations and anxieties to take over.
To maintain that anxiety throughout the film, Kurzel goes to great lengths to show how unchecked and volatile the eventual killer is. Pretty quickly, for example, audiences learn to recognize (and fear the consequences of) a distinct style of heavy breathing that Nitram adopts when he’s enraged beyond control. “Nitram” also puts heavy focus on how people in positions of power — his parents, psychologist and an adult friend named Helen — failed to keep him under control, or notice when he was struggling. Kurzel seems to cite these failures as a major factor for the massacre, just as he cites the gun shop employee, who, in an especially frustrating moment, enables Nitram’s growing gun obsession beyond the scope of the law.
At the same time, “Nitram” doesn’t necessarily humanize nor excuse its subject. Kurzel doesn’t seem interested in making the explicit argument that Nitram’s actions were only the result of being failed by the “system” or by those close to him. Rather, the film takes care in showing the few nurturing moments in Nitram's life — either in rare, genuinely loving relationships, or the tender moments in his more strained relationships — pathways to a possible redemption that unfortunately never materialized.
It's a challenging role, and there's no doubt that American actor Landry Jones’s performance is a high point for the film. The role, for which Jones was awarded “Best Actor” at the festival, sees him take on the serial killer’s insecurities and motivations in terrifyingly compelling ways.
Still, the mere existence of "Nitram" raises a series of essential questions: Whom is this film for? Who benefits from, or would be so interested in seeing, such a deep dive into the life of a serial killer — especially one at the heart of such nationwide and generational trauma?
Kurzel claims that he created the film to raise awareness about the realities of gun violence as Australia continues to loosen restrictions, but it's questionable if "Nitram" is the best way to achieve this goal. Sure, audiences are exposed to the dangerous shortfalls of having gun shops regulate who has access to deadly weapons, and we see the role that various broken societal systems played in allowing Nitram to fall into such violent actions. However, the film stops short of a long-standing message that links its existence to a clear call for gun control in Australia.
The film seems inconsistent with it's messaging — on the one hand, it plays up the lack of a strong mental health care system to support Nitram. But on the other, it seems to correlate Nitram's mental health and reliance on antidepressants (rather than his lack of access to adequate mental health care) directly with his violent actions. For a film that's meant to be a call to action for gun reform, not only is Kurzel's argument problematic in places like mental health, but inconsistent and consequently, ineffective in bringing about larger change.
“Nitram” is undoubtedly a strong technical film, especially with Jones's lead performance. However, its convoluted relationship with mental health, and its self-confused goals of sharing the Port Arthur Massacre story still leaves it with plenty of room to grow.
—Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bySofiaAndrade.