‘Nitram’ Review: Caleb Landry Jones Plays With Fire in Tense, Towering Portrait of a Mass Killer

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Justin Kurzel’s exceptionally disturbing, horribly plausible “Nitram” opens with an excerpt from a 1979 Australian news report on firework accidents. A boy of about 12 is being interviewed from his Hobart hospital bed, and when the posh, compassionate voice of the presenter asks if the injuries he sustained will discourage him from playing with fireworks in future, he smiles a strange, sly smile, and says no. Years later, he is a young man (electrically played by Caleb Landry Jones) in the backyard of his parents’ house, setting off firecrackers while neighbors howl at him from their balconies. The intense discomfort of this nitroglycerine meditation on what makes a mass murderer is exactly that of watching a lit firework burn down in your hand toward its gunpowder base, unable to let go of it, transfixed by its snapping sparks.

“Nitram,” written by Kurzel’s “Snowtown” and “True History of the Kelly Gang” collaborator Shaun Grant, is the story of a man the filmmakers refuse to name, an event they don’t depict and an atrocity many wish forgotten. The 1996 Port Arthur Massacre lies like a scar across the national psyche, and inevitably, Kurzel will face accusations of prurience, of insensitivity and of currying sympathy for the devil (the real murderer is currently serving 35 life sentences, plus 1,652 years in prison without the possibility of parole).

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But “Nitram,” while ostensibly similar to Kurzel’s staggeringly violent debut “Snowtown” in also being based on notoriously grisly true events, is a far more mature and better modulated work. Instead of bullets and bodies, under the blood-rush swells of Jed Kurzel’s grave and glimmering score, and draped in Germain McMicking’s composed, careful handheld images, the focus is on the years, weeks and days before the tragedy.

And while Grant’s script is resigned to never being able to entirely understand the killer’s broken psychology, outside factors — distracted doctors, unsupported caregivers and especially lax gun laws that can be manipulated by unscrupulous firearms dealers — are unsparingly highlighted. In fact, in its quiet respect for the victims’ dignity, its uniformly outstanding performances and in apportioning responsibility only to those who shirked their responsibilities, and deploying a grief-struck compassion toward everyone else, “Nitram” may come to be recognized as one of the finest exemplars yet of the mass-shooting movie — inasmuch as we can stomach having an entire genre built around the phenomenon.

Nitram (Jones) hates being called “Nitram.” It isn’t his name, it’s a derisory nickname that somehow clings to him (in fact, this is one of the script’s most interesting flourishes, giving a backwards name to a backwards person, while also avoiding potentially increasing the real killer’s fame). Volatile and frequently violent despite his medications, he still lives at home with his mother (an incredible Judy Davis), who is made hardened and wary by years of raising her troubled son, and his softer, more loving but no less miserable father (a heartbreaking Anthony LaPaglia). Nitram’s attempts at connection with others his age, particularly Jamie (Sean Keenan), the golden-boy local surfer dude who looks like a Nitram-gone-right, always end badly: He is, simply, impossible to like, and therefore easy to reject and ridicule.

His fortunes change, literally, when he meets Helen (Essie Davis), the lonely eccentric heir to a lottery fund fortune, who takes to him immediately and lets him move into her crumbling mansion, where together they play records of comic operettas and dress up among the menagerie of dogs and cats. (And if you think this “Grey Gardens” character seems like a stretch, like all of the film’s seemingly more implausible screenwriting inventions, she is based in reality.) For a time, life is sweeter for Nitram, then Helen dies, leaving him all her money and removing from his life her somewhat stabilizing influence.

Kurzel’s filmmaking often feels forged in fire. His mighty “Macbeth” and his anarchic “Kelly Gang” sizzle and blacken like irons plunged hissing into water from a blacksmith’s furnace. But if “Nitram” is also born in flames, it’s in the nervy blue fire of Jones’ devastating, skittish performance, which is astonishing precisely because it does not invite us to share in the killer’s private thoughts and tortured motivations. His is a psyche locked away inside clouded eyes, which rarely meet another’s gaze and are disconcerting when they do, unnaturally bright and unfathomable behind a straggly curtain of dirty blonde hair.

“No dramas,” says the gun salesman on learning that Nitram doesn’t have a firearms license but does have a big bag of cash and a yen for semi-automatic rifles. He can sell him all the machine guns he can carry, provided Nitram doesn’t register them. He’ll even throw in some boxes of ammo — no dramas. But of course “Nitram” moves inexorably towards drama, a process that Kurzel’s eviscerating film imagines as a hopeless crush of inevitability, of circumstances closing in, awful coincidences occurring and the options for avoiding the direst possible outcome narrowing to zero. And perhaps most troublingly, as this winnowing-away of opportunity happens, for Nitram, there seems to be a terrible sense of becoming. When he reaches into his duffel bag of guns, looking up from his fruit cup in a cafeteria that will in moments become the site of worst mass shooting in Australian history, his eyes, for the first time, are clear.

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