Nitram (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A distant but chilling character study by Justin Kurzel

Jusitn Kurzel’s new film “Nitram” is a distant but chilling character study based on the real-life figure who perpetrated a shocking mass shooting incident in Tasmania, Australia in 1996. Although it is a pretty uncomfortable experience to say the least, the movie works mainly thanks to its dry and austere storytelling approach and several good performances to be appreciated, and I admired its strong elements even while often horrified and repulsed by its many disturbing moments during my viewing.

During its early part, the movie gradually establishes the constantly troubling daily life of a deeply disturbed lad named Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones). Although his parents, played by Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, have tried their best for having their son under control, they are usually frustrated and exasperated whenever their son makes another trouble, and all they can do at present is tolerating his frequent mood swings in addition to occasionally taking him to his psychiatrist for his medication.

As his parents have one headache after another due to his uncontrollable behaviors, Nitram tries a bit to be more social and useful, but his pathetic attempts only show us more of what an unpleasant creep he really is. He tries to do surfing just like other local lads, but, as his mother dryly points out, he does not know how to surf, let alone how to swim. He also attempts to earn some money for him via lawn-mowing, but nobody is particularly eager to hire him in his neighborhood.

And then there comes an unexpected change for him when he comes to a house belonging to a middle-aged woman named Helen (Essie Davis). She hires him without asking much, and he does some lawn-mowing as expected while spending more time in her house. He soon comes to leave his parents’ house and then begins to stay in her house, and his parents are certainly flabbergasted, though they do not expect that much from this change.

What follows next is a sort of morbid variation of “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). Although she is a former actress who has been behind her glory days, Helen is affluent enough to support herself and her many pets in the house, and Nitram seems content to be kept by her because she is impulsive and childish just like him. Although the movie does not delve that deep into how much they are actually close to each other, their relationship seems to be working well for both of them, and we get some cheerful moments as Helen wields her flamboyant sides in front of Nitram.

However, their happiness does not last that long, and the second half of the movie observes how Nitram becomes more disturbed step by step as living with his parents again. After devastated by the failure of his business plan, his father becomes quite ill, and there is a shocking scene where Nitram makes a drastic attempt to make his father get up from a couch. What happens not long after that seems to sadden and devastate Nitram, but he makes another disastrous choice, and that puts more distance between him and his mother, who has already given him up after enduring so much anger and frustration for years.

Once Nitram happens to get a certain horrible idea later, the movie calmly shows his following preparation process, and it thankfully sticks to its restrained attitude during the inevitable finale. What he eventually commits is not shown much on the screen, but the final moment of the film still feels chilling and devastating nonetheless, and we are more chilled as coming to learn that gun control remains to be a serious issue in Australia despite some fundamental changes of gun control laws resulted from that horrible mass shooting incident.

Shaun Grant’s screenplay adamantly maintains its detached viewpoint on its hero without telling us much on what actually makes him tick, but Caleb Landry Jones, a young American actor who has been more notable thanks to his solid supporting turns in “Get Out” (2017) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), holds our attention via his committed acting, which incidentally received the Best Actor award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year. Right from his very first scene, Jones effectively embodies many unnerving aspects of his increasingly alarming character, and the creepy intensity of his strong performance is one of the main reasons why the movie works.

In case of several other main cast members of the film, they did more than merely being counterpoints to Jones’ character. While Judy Davis, a wonderful Australian actress who has been always dependable since her breakout turn in “My Brilliant Career” (1979), is quietly unflappable as demanded, Essie Davis, who is incidentally Kurzel’s wife, has a very good scene with Davis as their characters have a little private conversation, and Anthony LaPaglia holds his own small place well as another substantial character in the story.

Although I have some reservation, “Nitram”, whose title is the first name of that real-life figure in backward, can be regarded as a sort of better alternative to “Joker” (2019) for handling its story and characters with more restraint and thoughtfulness, and it is surely another interesting work from Kurzel, who previously drew my attention with his two previous films “Macbeth” (2015) and “True History of the Kelly Gang” (2019). I recommend it mainly for its commendable acting and several admirable technical aspects, but I must emphasize to you again that this is a truly tough and disturbing work, so I will let you to decide whether you will watch it or not.

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