Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Australia, 2021. GoodThing Productions, Melbourne International Film Festival. Screenplay by Shaun Grant. Cinematography by Germain McMicking. Produced by Nick Batzias, Shaun Grant, Justin Kurzel, Virginia Whitwell. Music by Jed Kurzel. Production Design by Alice Babidge. Costume Design by Alice Babidge. Film Editing by Nick Fenton.
It’s an immediate feeling of dislike that we feel when we meet Nitram, played by Caleb Landry Jones, and it’s very appropriate that we do: in turning the real-life case of mass murderer Martin Bryant into a film, director Justin Kurzel risks the possibility of romanticizing a cold-blooded killer by making him the hero of a story about unexpressed rage and under-examined mental illness, but Kurzel makes sure his main character is never an offbeat, misunderstood rebel.
Nitram (his name a reversal of the real killer’s, which avoids saying it out loud) is now an adult but hasn’t let go of his habit of driving the neighbours crazy playing with fireworks, which he continues to do despite having sustained an injury doing the same thing as a child. Perpetually dirty and unkempt, he takes the antidepressants that are prescribed him but is still prone to aggravating, antisocial behaviour which is helped neither by his caring but unmotivating father (Anthony LaPaglia), who suffers from his own bouts of depression, nor the hard remove with which he is treated by his mother (Judy Davis). Nitram’s attempt to do something productive is to offer up lawn care services to his neighbours, and even that he cannot do without making a nuisance of himself, but there’s a lid for every pot in this world, and he finds his when he knocks on the door of a wealthy heiress living in a crumbling manor with a menagerie of cats and dogs named Helen, played by Essie Davis (in real life, Tattersall heiress Helen Harvey also lived with her aging mother, which would have made the Grey Gardens comparisons more thorough had the film not taken the liberty of presenting her on her own).
Helen sees past Nitram’s antisocial behaviour and forms a genuine bond of friendship that results in his moving in with her, much to the bewilderment of his parents, who have never known anyone else who could stand him. Life with Helen ends in tragedy, fortunes turn for the worse for Nitram’s father and his plan to purchase an oceanfront bed and breakfast property, and every other frustration that our main character interprets as a microaggression being launched specifically against him builds up, including his failed friendship with a handsome surfer who doesn’t understand Nitram’s inability to read social cues.
Australian viewers will be most familiar with the story and will recognize its fidelity to the major bullet points of how things went down in real life, a tragedy that ended with Bryant murdering thirty-five people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania, and injuring twenty-three more before being apprehended and sentenced to thirty-five life sentences. Bryant’s own testimony about his motivations has been conflicting and varied over the years and it would be foolish and arrogant to whittle things down to a simple explanation, but there’s plenty on display here to show that, while still holding the killer responsible for his actions, Kurzel is making a case against a society that has failed Nitram in many ways, from the poor understanding of mental health issues, the inability of parents to see their son’s behaviour as more than just brattiness, and a lax attitude towards weapons regulation that sees him purchasing an treasure trove of firearms from a store owner willing to ignore the fact that he doesn’t have a gun licence.
The real emphasis, though, is on pressure, which Kurzel slowly piles onto the character with each passing scene, and does so effectively through haunting music and evocative cinematography, but the longer the film goes on, the more it seems that the aesthetics are there to replace substance rather than comment on it. There’s not much depth to this one and it doesn’t help that Landry Jones, with his overbaked devotion to the character’s unsavoury qualities, is undermining the severity of the story by overdoing his mannerisms and mumblings, giving us far more affectation than emotional effect (a quick Google Image search reveals that, in real life, Bryant never took a photo with his hair uncombed, and it only makes the actor seem that much more pretentious).
Landry-Jones, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his performance, is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, as no one ever played emotionally unavailable better than Judy Davis, while Essie Davis’s characterization of the lonely socialite lost in her own memories of Gilbert And Sullivan musicals is captivating enough for a film of her own.
Cannes Film Festival Award: Best Actor (Caleb Landry Jones)