The man-child as mass murderer: Justin Kurzel’s Nitram
And sometimes I watch myself, but I don’t know who – who it is I’m looking at. Like, I can’t get to him. If I could – if I could just change him so that he was like everyone else, but I don’t know how. So instead I’m – I’m here, stuck here, like this.
Nitram (2021), Justin Kurzel‘s film based on a 1996 massacre of 35 people that traumatised Australia, is an electrifying experience. Not only is it grounded in four outstanding central performances, but the descent of the protagonist from pathetic misfit into merciless killer is utterly striking, convincing and instructive.
His steps through various humiliations, mostly self-inflicted but sometimes caused by the overreaction of others, left this viewer with a plausible explanation for what is now a veritable plague of mass shootings, a phenomenon that from the outside is just mysterious and thoroughly alien. One achievement of the film is taking us to the inside, guided by Caleb Landry Jones‘s Cannes-winning performance that makes his character’s stunted emotional life wholly transparent to us. Jones also manages to make us feel empathy for he who has no such thing for others, so pitiful and locked into a narrow perspective as he is, with his torturous anxiety attacks especially important gateways for our emotional connection.
Judy Davis as the mother of Nitram – his name spelled backwards, a childhood taunt that has stuck with this young adult – comes across as fresh and enthralling, even though we have seen her trademark acerbic acting style many times before, and she is instantly recognisable. A for-this-role rotund Anthony LaPaglia is more difficult to place, as a father who is basically a failure in life but unlike the mother still loves his son unconditionally. Essie Davis is marvellous in the role of a reclusive, eccentric millionaire who as a 50-year-old, but almost as childish as him, becomes Nitram’s unlikely best friend, letting him stay at her big, run-down house otherwise shared by an assortment of unruly dogs and cats.
Jones has earlier shown a special talent for playing pathetic, for example in Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg, 2012), and Kurzel’s impressive debut feature Snowtown (2011) excelled precisely in its portrait of wretched lives, in an environment where a serial killer could operate right under their noses without raising suspicion. With also (the very uneven) True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), three out of five Kurzel feature films have been about real-life criminals. Another movie that springs to mind is Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) – deeply analysed for Montages here – for a similarly convincing story of a social misfit with psychological issues, that film too driven by a towering central performance, who is finally losing all meaningful connection to society.
Apart from the scene where Nitram is repeatedly punching his depressed father – shown quite indirectly even though shocking in its ferocity – no violence is shown in the film. As if to reassure Australian audiences nervous about any direct depiction of the traumatising real-life event, the initial two killings before the later main massacre are kept scrupulously out of sight. Taking a cue from the for Nitram aptly named Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950), Kurzel replicates its famous bank robbery scene by showing the entire situation from a position in the back seat of a car, letting the audience’s imagination take care of what happens after Nitram enters the victims’ house, gunshots almost immediately ringing out.
In addition to being heavily medicated – although the doctor’s appointment scene hints that his mother may be exaggerating his mental issues so that pills can take the worst edge off his rebellious, difficult nature – Nitram seems like a case of arrested development. He acts like a ten-year-old throughout, but with an additional, almost complete lack of empathy for others. The main exception might be his father, especially through the suddenly warm and moving scene where they sit in a car looking at a property the father dreams of buying, for a new career running a bed-and-breakfast in rural surroundings, a potentially life-changing event for them both.
Nitram is impatient and easily distracted, and if someone says he cannot do something he absolutely wants to do it. He fiddles with everything, lies down in a chair rather than properly sit, sticks his head out of the car window to feel the wind, and refuses to comply when his mother wants him to go and get his very long hair cut. Even how he meets Helen the millionaire is the way of a child, trying to earn pocket money by offering to mow people’s lawns. And his methods of revenge reveal the pettiness of an infant: destroying the mailbox of the couple who secured the property his father wanted, upending a bowl of sweets on the floor at the real estate agency that blithely let it happen, or kicking up dust going around in circles with his car after his mother has forbidden him to enter the funeral.
Nitram is a completely laughable person and the first half hour or so of the film plays out almost like a comedy, for example in the priceless moment when he, unable to get the lawn-mower started, is kicking at it violently, while Helen observes this, giggling like a small girl, in the process revealing that this 50-year-old woman still wears braces on her teeth. Covering up this fact seems to be the reason for her habit of immediately closing her mouth after a laugh, and Essie Davis‘s interpretation of this eccentric wonderfully raises the comedy stakes. She is also walking around completely unperturbed by the thick line of blonde aftergrowth along the middle parting of her otherwise dyed-black hair.
One thing, however, makes our laughter get stuck in our throats, even though Nitram finds it exceedingly funny: his playful habit of interfering with the steering wheel when she is driving.
Transformations and echoes
In a chilling connection to this article’s initial quote from Nitram about the urge to change himself, one day the TV tells him the news of the Dunblane massacre. Earlier, the same TV showed him the 1937 Hollywood movie A Star is Born, whose title seems prescient, and in a further connection to this media angle, he sets up a camera to record the start of his own massacre. Apart from Helen, the only respect he is shown in the whole film comes during the late scene where he receives admiring comments from a weapon salesman for his marksmanship. Earlier, Nitram would have liked to be transformed into someone the film constructs as a parallel character, the surfer Jamie (Sean Keenan): he too has long blonde hair and a similar facial shape, but is very good-looking and confident with the ladies, and in one scene they sit together in a car and discuss approaching the same girl. (The film also seems to hint that they have had a gay encounter when much younger.)
There are also transformations to do with objects, with bags tracing a trajectory: a bag of belongings when Nitram moves in with Helen, and the big one he is lugging around towards the end at first contains money, but later it is full of weapons. And the cherished airgun he got from his father, probably laying the foundation for his later good marksmanship, is substituted with deadly firearms.
There are clashing echoes: after Nitram has miserably failed at surfing – he seems to have no conception that it requires skill and training – there is an abrupt cut to a scene where it is discovered that his father have met his death precisely in water, a suicide by drowning. After his mother has forbidden Nitram to participate in the funeral due to his outlandish costume – this is the one time where we feel her resignation/revulsion with him leads her into something clearly unreasonable – it is immediately followed by a scene at a travel agency where another woman is denying him absolutely nothing, obeying his every whim, as he sits there in his most pitiful moment, with tearful eyes, weakly mumbling “first class”, recalling his plan to fly to the US with Helen.
There is an echoing scene later, at the weapons shop where the salesman is treating him in the same extremely forthcoming, business-like manner, the film strikingly comparing the smooth sale of deadly firearms to any other product. As if to underscore the linkage, in both scenes Nitram says “is it enough”, about the money he has brought. The car salesman is likewise happy to profit from Helen’s extravagance – it is hinted she is a frequent customer – and as for humiliations, his out-of-sight bullying of Nitram to punish him for his goofy behaviour, treating him like a little kid, is mirrored by the attitude of the real estate agent crushing his father’s dream, announcing with a slick smile that even though he was promised the property, a higher bid came in.
During the birthday party, his mother tells Helen a pivotal story from Nitram’s childhood about him having disappeared during a shopping trip: when she sat crying in her car after a long frantic search, it turns out he had all the time been hiding in that very car, and laughs in her face despite her obvious desperation. This is the moment we get the feeling she gave up on him, his cruelty finally obliterating the unconditional love of a mother. But it is unclear whether her revulsion was an overreaction towards a thoughtless child, however much he might have been a repeat offender, and whether her following rejection of him helped cause or exacerbate his later emotional issues. (Helen is quietly stunned at the story; the scene that clearest shows that for all her girlishness and eccentricity, she has a much firmer grasp on reality and emotions than Nitram.) The childhood story is echoed later, as Nitram observes his other parent cry in another car, outside the real estate agency. A car is also involved a pivotal moment in his relationship with Helen.
It is the café where Nitram was at his happiest, celebrating his birthday with Helen and his parents, that will be the main arena for the massacre. He has bought new clothes and shoes, so paradoxically for the first time his appearance looks fairly normal. In fact, his newfound vocation as a murderer entails a new sense of normalcy, because he is meticulously cleaning and tidying up the house, and even lets all the dogs loose before driving away to murder.
In a final sign of arrested development, however, he acts like a child again when ordering, showing the waitress some small change, asking what he can get for it. He might even be sitting down at the same table as on the birthday when he calmly eats, in stark contrast to his newfound riches, the poor man’s meal of fruit and juice. In a final clumsy mistake, he almost forgets to remove the lens cap from the camera with which he intends to record the massacre.
The inscrutable mother figure
Even though the sense of foreboding towards the end – if one knows about the real-life disaster – lies heavily on the film, this author nevertheless finds the two scenes between Nitram and his mother in the third act to take the greatest emotional toll. Here the sense of personal disaster from both parties is extremely acute, and the abyss between them is palpable and painful to a degree I have seldom experienced in cinema. In the first scene, Landry Jones’s performance is searingly raw, awakening deep empathy for him as he delivers accusations against his mother and dead father about their lack of love for him, and she is haltingly, Davis’s distinctive voice rougher than ever, trying to reach out to him from behind her emotional armour. In the second situation, very movingly she is really trying to overcome her numbness, to be friendly and supportive as she visits him in his vast, lonely house, ending their interactions sitting on his bed as he goes to sleep, the real mother tentatively reborn. One could suspect her of trying to ingratiate herself due to his new wealth but no signal is given to us that she is interested in that.
A lot of the enduring fascination generated by the film comes from the choice of Judy Davis playing her character as fundamentally inscrutable – in great contrast to Jones’s raw transparency – and after two viewings this author is still not sure how much she is to blame for Nitram’s predicament and what she is really feeling in the various situations. In her first scenes she comes across as unreasonably nagging and domineering and later she is openly contemptuous towards Helen, but our picture is eventually nuanced, regardless of her acerbic tone, through her story to Helen about how impossible Nitram was as a child. She spends a lot of the film as a passive bystander, and when Nitram is pounding at his father’s head to get him up from the sofa and out of his depression, she is just standing there, as hard to read as ever.
She is given the importance of owning the last shot of the film, where both performance and mise-en-scène keep insisting on making her inscrutable and a bystander. She sits outside smoking, without expression, while the reportage about the massacre is rolling on TV, with the sound discernable through the veranda door. It is probably way too early for the perpetrator to be known, but does she somehow has an inkling?
In the last shot inside Nitram’s house during her visit, the lighting makes a cross around her neck gleam, a piece of jewellery we have not noticed with her before. In the last shot of the film, her head is reflected in the veranda window, carefully superimposed on the TV screen inside. Her back is turned on the spectacle but it will be forever on her mind – and she might be partially guilty.