Making sense of a meaningless tragedy is often a fruitless endeavor that easily runs the risk of offending sensitive viewers. Nitram aims to avoid the pratfalls of similar films by examining the situation in an entirely different light. Expressly, Nitram depicts events leading up to a shooting that occurred in 1999 Australia, one which forced gun laws to evolve. And yet, does anything today really feel all that different from the events depicted here? Nitram gave me an eerie feeling in the pit of my stomach; I cannot say if I would watch it a second time, but it surely has an undeniable, disquieting power.
Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones, Get Out, Finch) is a quiet boy, and it would seem he has always had an obsession with firecrackers. His introverted nature means a healthy amount of prescription meds to keep him stable. Still, Nitram seems a particularly volatile individual. His mental health issues are worsened by the circumstances swirling around him; however, Nitram is just in general a bad kid who seeks out danger and chaos purposely. How can one sympathize with such a villain? Caleb Landry Jones gives a dedicated and vulnerable turn that will no doubt be a career highlight for the young actor.
What really pushed Nitram to violence? Was it his relationship with older woman Helen (Essie Davis, The Babadook, Assassin’s Creed), who herself serves as a stand-in for Nitram’s confused motherly figure? Judy Davis is stern as Nitram’s mother, but lacks the compassion to understand or ever truly connect with Nitram. Writer Shaun Grant appears to hint that there was always a dark edge to him, evidenced by the child-firecracker scene that opens the film. By refusing to name-drop the real-life killer and giving him the nickname Nitram, Grant wisely foregoes any brand of glorification that may be perceived.
The tragic shooting event is never depicted, but it doesn’t need to be. We already know what happens afterward—blankly sketching out these kills would mean absolutely nothing beyond offending the families of said victims. Apart from Landry, the performances and the general mood evoke a hopelessness and darkness to the soul that emerges as tangible horror. What can hit the hardest is the unexplainable. Why did he do what he did? How did he justify the murders in his own mind? While we may never have the answers we desire, Justin Kurzel tastefully molds art from tragedy.
Nitram heads to limited release theaters on Wednesday, March 30th, as well as debuting to streaming on AMC Plus.