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'Nitram' Review: A hauntingly brooding true-crime drama

'Nitram' - Justin Kurzel

There are many takeaways to be had from Nitram, the latest independent true-crime drama that explores the mind of a killer, with the biggest one being that Justin Kurzel is a masterful director working at his very best when he is restricted by limitations. 

Clearly fascinated by the relationship between violence and masculinity, Kurzel’s best film to date mirrored similar themes to his latest, with Snowtown earning a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. Detailing the life of the serial killer John Bunting from the perspective of a young teenager, the film is a haunting examination of exploitation and deep-rooted carnal masculine rage. 

Tempted by the bright lights of Hollywood, Kurzel took to adapting Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the video game Assassin’s Creed and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang all in the space of the last decade, with neither of these aforementioned films reaching the heights of his small-scale dramatic roots. Thankfully, with Nitram, Kurzel once again finds his groove, creating yet another cinematic investigation of a real-life serial killer that prompts thought and conversation. 

This time, Kurzel delves into the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, a painful chapter in Australian history that prompted several urgent gun laws to be passed across the country. 640,000 guns were destroyed in a dramatic cut down on rights to bear arms, with the National Firearms Agreement taking just 12 days to be agreed on as detailed at the end of the film as a timely reminder of the flagrant disregard of similar US policies. 

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The man behind this attack, which saw 35 people die, was Martin Bryant, the subject of Kurzel’s film, who is renamed ‘Nitram’ in the narrative retelling of the story. Tracking his life prior to committing the heinous act, actor Caleb Landry Jones gets under the skin of the infamous individual and explores the influences of the intellectually disabled young man whose lack of appropriate support led to his actions.

Whilst several moving parts help make Nitram an overwhelming dramatic success, from Kurzel’s deft direction to Shaun Grant’s minimalist script, the movie is controlled and manipulated by Landry Jones, who won Best Actor at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival for his efforts. Intensely disturbing, he grasps ahold of the character’s dissociation with frightening ease, with his temperament controlling the very pace and tone of any given scene. 

In this eerie hold of tension, he also elevates the performances of fellow supporting actors Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, who play his mother and father, as well as The Babadook’s Essie Davis who takes on the role of an older lover. Each actor feeds into the dark tone of Kurzel’s intense drama that is as much an unnerving sympathetic story of neglect as it is an examination of a truly disturbed soul.

Where true-crime dramas can delve too much into the morbidly curious details of a killer’s most infamous moment, Kurzel has demonstrated for the second time, how such stories should be told. Dark, brooding, grim and totally devoid of flashy Hollywood style, Nitram is a difficult piece of filmmaking to get through, but one that remains increasingly urgent.

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