This is a review of the true-crime motion picture Nitram. We saw this film at the Petone Lighthouse Cinema on the 19th of November at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Also, certain very minor narrative events of the film are spoiled in this review.
On Halloween 2016, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were browsing the shelves of a place that no longer exists, the iconic DVD rental store Videon on Dominion Road in Auckland. We were looking for something horror to fit the Halloween season. Somehow, I ended up stumbling across the DVD of Snowtown.
Snowtown is the 2011 true crime drama based on the bodies in the barrels murders by infamous serial killer John Bunting in the directorial debut of Justin Kurzel, an Australian filmmaker. This film might be the greatest Australian film of all time (perhaps The Castle is greater). The material is haunting — told entirely from the perspective of young Jamie Vlassakis (a young man pulled into the madness by John Bunting). A fascinating story, in that fact is stranger than fiction way. Needless to say, this film is essential viewing and the true definition of true horror.
So our attention was peaked when we saw that Justin Kurzel was making another true crime film, this time about the Port Arthur massacre that occurred in Tasmania, Australia in 1996 committed by 29-year-old Martin Bryant. The film was called Nitram. After much searching, we found out it was playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival. So we bought two tickets and went along to the Petone Lighthouse Cinema on the 19th of November to see our most anticipated film of 2021.
Two hours later we walked out of the cinema needing to collect our thoughts. Nitram is a fascinating true-crime drama that sticks with you for a while after you’ve seen it. Not for any specific unforgettable moments in it, but as your mind ponders the story over, you pluck moments and think ‘that was sad’, then ‘that moment was tragic’, then, ‘maybe if that didn’t happen…’. The film is a series of tragic events, through the eyes of a character that you are unsure how much he even understands. 29-year-old Martin Bryant had an IQ of 66, equivalent to an 11-year-old.
The lead character is portrayed expertly by Caleb Landry Jones as a simple person with a love of fireworks and watching things explode. The character is never named, only ever called Nitram (which is Martin backwards). Nitram is also a name he doesn’t enjoy being called which I’m unfamiliar with if that is based on any truth. Nevertheless, Jones does a fantastic job in the role. Playing the character with childlike emotion which works for a character with limited intellect.
The other characters populating Nitram are fascinating in their own right. Both Nitram’s parents have their own arcs within the narrative. In fact, what happens to Nitram father seems crucial to Martin Bryant ‘snapping’. Nitram’s mother is played by Judy Davis (from one of Jessica’s favourite movies A Passage to India), she does a pretty good job at playing the cold mother role. She reminded me of Allison Janney playing Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya (another fantastic true crime movie).
Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey who is played by Australian actress Essie Davis is one of the most interesting characters in the film because her motivations are mysterious. She is the only person (other than his father) in the movie that genuinely loves and cares for Nitram. Yet you as an audience member are left asking why she has taken such a shine to our unlikeable lead. Nevertheless, Helen is a welcome warmth to a considerably bleak and dark movie.
Nitram is a subtler film than something like Snowtown. Snowtown is a film with so many explosions of violence, this film is less so. Nitram is slower-paced — while still filled with stranger than fiction moments, such as Nitram being given half a million dollars and being sold semi-auto weapons without a gun license. This film has much more of a footing in drama than the horror of Snowtown. This is a movie ABOUT the person who carried out the Port Arthur mass shooting, NOT a film about the Port Arthur mass shooting.
The horror of the massacre (and in fact any violence) is tastefully done off-screen. From the perspective of respecting the horror of the event, that makes sense. From a film making perspective, less so, not just for the sake of violence but it makes sense for us to see Nitram’s face as he carries out this atrocity, similar to how NZ’s own Out of the Blue did it. What is Nitram feeling as he is carrying out this mass murder? Happy? Sad? Confused? Regretful? Anything? Nothing? It is difficult to watch, yes, but compelling to see (but understandable with all the controversy in Tasmania over the film’s release).
The only real negative I can say about this movie is that the script is a little dicey near the beginning of the film. Some of the early writing didn’t quite work for me, felt kind of too ‘dramatic’ or maybe it was exposition dumps (I’d have to watch again to pinpoint it). It must be annoying to have you work compared to your previous work but I’m going to do it again, Snowtown is so real and natural. Everything in that movie felt real which is why it works so well, in fact, many of the actors in the film were amateurs and portions of the film are adlibbed because of this. This film, well, has moments that FEEL like a film — it sounds like actors reading a script (albeit very well). This only bugged me near the beginning of the movie; once I settled in, I felt it much less. Eventually, I found myself completely immersed in the narrative.
If you can somehow see this film, it is very much recommended. I saw this movie over a week ago and I’m still thinking about it. So much so, I used my Sunday morning on my day off to write this review. There is something about films like these, Nitram and Snowtown, it is that stranger than fiction element. Those moments that make true crime compelling, those ‘that can’t be true’ moments that make up a compelling narrative.
— Review by True Crime New Zealand