The Tragedy of ‘Nitram’

A riveting, controversial, flawed film about the man behind Australia’s worst mass shooting

Few films are as inflammatory as ‘Nitram’, Justin Kurzel’s dramatization of events leading up to the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, the April 1996 massacre at Port Arthur, Tasmania, which drove Australians to draft and approve an overhaul of their gun laws in just 12 days.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Kurzel has cast American actor Caleb Landry Jones as the killer, whose nickname Nitram is a taunt that pupils used to hurl at him and one that kids in grown bodies, immature adults, still use maliciously. Anyone can quickly see what Nitram spells backwards, but this is as close as the movie comes to using the killer’s name. Anthony LaPaglia plays Nitram’s father, an overweight man struggling with depression, Judy Davis plays his sad mother, and Essie Davis plays the lonely heiress who becomes one of the few people to befriend the youth and welcome him into her life when he comes around asking to mow the lawn for money.

All these are, or were, real people. There’s not a mediocre performance here, though the project aroused revulsion in Tasmania and some actors might have given it a wide berth. The movie has drawn condemnation and many cinemas refused to show it.

‘Nitram’ opens with footage from a news program of the killer as a boy in the burn ward of a Hobart hospital one day in 1979, where he ended up after playing with fireworks. When asked whether he has learnt a lesson from the mishap, the boy tells his interviewer that he has no plans to give up his toys. When we meet him as a young man, he is setting off fireworks, to the fury of a neighbor, in the yard of the home where he lives with his parents.

Here is a guy who likes to see stuff get blown up, and the more spectacular the better. His parents treat him like an unruly child for whom they bear a grudging responsibility. The only ray of hope is the news that the father has gotten approval for a loan to buy a bed-and-breakfast on the coast. They will soon have a much nicer life and the friction with their neighbors will be a memory.

Nitram tries to talk to strangers on the beach, in bars, and while making the rounds offering his services as a lawn-trimmer. It’s painful to see how few people want to respond to this shambling oddball who expresses himself haltingly and often monosyllabically. Then Nitram’s life changes when he meets the aforementioned millionaire, who is based on Helen Harvey, the heiress of a lottery fortune. In real life, Harvey lived with her mom in a mansion with dozens of cats and dogs at the time she met Nitram. We see the animals but never meet the mother in the film. Helen buys gifts for Nitram, in whom she sees a funny, relatable doofus and surrogate son. Or is that husband? The mother poses the question point-blank when the parents meet Helen in a café. Helen has no answer.

Nor does Kurzel settle this question for the viewer. What follows is a spoiler only if you are unfamiliar with the story behind the film. Out on the road with Helen, Nitram causes a crash that kills her and puts him in the ICU. He tells the police that he was asleep at the time of the accident, but Nitram has long had a habit of reaching over from the passenger’s seat of a car and yanking the wheel. He likes to see stuff get smashed, and now he has gotten his wish. The police in Tasmania never charge anyone in the death of Helen Harvey. He inherits more than half a million dollars and, once out of the hospital, goes about flaunting his wealth in the hope that shows of money can accomplish what his charm, wit, and intelligence are pitifully unable to achieve.

But the cash fails to impress strangers and money turns out to be the source of just about the worst frustration Nitram’s family could face when the bank tells his father that another couple has come through with a bigger offer for the property on the coast. In a few scenes, LaPaglia does more to convey the depths of shock, anger, and depression than some actors achieve in their career.

Not all viewers will pick up on this, but for film geeks and Australian movie buffs, there is a bit of dark irony to the casting of LaPaglia in this role. In the 2001 film The Bank, he plays an oily bank executive who puts his faith in the logic of macro and micro forces and disdains people who fail to grasp them. Most of that movie is about the bigshot’s relationship with a young innovator who claims to have a formula that can predict what the stock market will do, but there is also a subplot involving a couple whose son has died after learning that they defaulted on their small business loan and the bank is going to take everything. When confronted by the father, who cries “You killed my son!”, LaPaglia coolly replies, “Did I? Or did you just fail in your business?”

In Kurzel’s movie, LaPaglia plays a man crushed by the workings of the market he championed in The Bank. Nitram seethes with anger toward the couple who outbid his parents and the strangers who blow him off and disdain his efforts to be friendly. He walks into a gun store, flaunts his piles of cash, and buys himself an arsenal. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Port Arthur massacre, there can be little doubt where things are going. Kurzel never actually depicts the shootings, but does a pretty good job of showing how, for a disturbed guy who loves his air rifle and his fireworks, real guns are like toys that can cause the biggest blow-up yet and get Nitram the attention others deny him.

Like Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve’s take on the worst mass shooting in Canada’s history, this film about the bloodiest such event that Australia has suffered makes a point of not using the name of the perpetrator at any point. At least not his real, full name. The reasons are understandable. All too often, people commit outrages like this to gain notoriety, and the Port Arthur killer acknowledged that as one of his motives.

But Kurzel’s logic here is a bit hard to follow. We’re not going to grant the killer notoriety by using his name, we’re just going to make a movie about him and show it to people around the world. Right. Got it. Makes perfect sense. I doubt that any of the 35 people whom Nitram shot dead will ever have movies made about them, in which we come to get a sense of their lives, loves, personalities, quirks, talents, tastes, interests, and struggles. Most will never know their names. No, Kurzel has decided that the killer is a good deal more interesting.

Incredible as it may sound, Kurzel has actually sanitized his subject a bit to make him more palatable for a commercial film. In his interactions with Helen and with others in the movie, Nitram comes across as likable and even kind. He tells a woman on the beach with all apparent sincerity that she has a pretty name, offers fireworks to schoolkids on their lunch break, buys drinks for strangers in bars, and cares for animals. Indeed one of the things that endear Nitram to Helen is his fondness for pets, and in a number of scenes we see him hold cats and stroke them and walk her many dogs.

Kurzel’s depiction of Nitram’s relationship to animals is bizarrely off. You would never know, viewing these scenes, just how much of a psychopath the movie’s subject was long before the events of April 1996. Mike Bingham’s book Suddenly One Sunday: The true story of the Port Arthur tragedy based on eyewitness accounts offers the memories of people who knew Nitram growing up and saw him torture and mistreat cats in ways too horrible to describe here. And it didn’t end with animals. Nitram was friends with a boy named Greg Lahey, and on three separate occasions pointed his air rifle at Lahey and pulled the trigger. As it happened, the gun was empty. Lahey broke off their friendship for good after an incident in 1981 where he was swimming and Nitram jabbed him on the top of the head with a spear.

Kurzel may be aware that people would rightly shun a film even hinting at mistreatment of animals, hence a number of facts about his subject go unacknowledged in ‘Nitram’ even though they might provide insight into the psychology that drove the events of April 1996. We see, instead, a well-meaning loner whose kindly impulses meet with frustration after frustration until he blows.

It is also hard not to note an odd tonal shift. ‘Nitram’ goes from an arthouse piece full of haunting and evocative shots of the beach and the road and the humans who look lonely or puny against such a backdrop, to a Michael Moore-style exercise in activist messaging. When Nitram walks into a gun store and buys an arsenal with the eager help of clerks who do not even attempt to check his background, he all but turns and winks at the camera to say, Look how easy it is to buy guns from these rubes! The film closes with somber messages on the screen about the fact that, despite the reforms, gun ownership is more prevalent in Australia today than in 1996.

Many people will no doubt applaud the message. On one level, this is a 112-minute ad for gun control. Australians wasted no time making radical changes to their gun laws, but you do have to wonder whether 12 days is enough time to make a reasoned, measured decision about the rights that millions of people hold, and to ensure that you are not acting hastily and recklessly in your short-term reaction to a tragedy.

One of the more interesting takes on Port Arthur comes from Dr. Todd Grande, the popular vlogger who applies psychoanalytic tools to true-crime cases and presents his thought-provoking, if not always on-target, analyses. In a discussion of the perpetrator, the incident, and the aftermath, Dr. Grande says it troubles him when a polity decides that because one person has misused a right, everyone should have to give up that right. His point is well taken. As long as we have free speech, there will be offensive speech. Some may conclude that it is time to end free speech.

A lot of people in Tasmania seem to have come to that conclusion. Only three theaters in all Tasmania screened Nitram, and prominent politicians decried the making of the film. It does not minimize the horror of the massacre and the still raw wounds of survivors and families to say that this is a silly reaction. Kurzel has made a movie for adults, who can choose not to see it if they do not wish to do so. This is a flawed work that does not fully acknowledge the psychopathy marking its subject long before the massacre. But the movie does at least try to make audiences grapple with the horrors of ostracism and bullying at the hands of adults who have never really grown up.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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