Caleb Landry Jones gives a memorable and layered performance in Nitram, an otherwise detached account of the life of the Port Arthur Massacre shooter.
While Justin Kurzel’s Nitram is only a fictional version of the events leading up to the Port Arthur Massacre that unfolded in Tasmania in 1996, it’s a highly disturbing and detached account of the life of its mentally ill protagonist.
Caleb Landry Jones puts in an incredible performance in the lead role. He’s a man struggling to fit into society, whose parents (played excellently by Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) have had their patience worn thin over the years. Eventually, the couple’s attempts to control their son’s chaotic behaviour fall on deaf ears, and they give up trying. Purely by chance, he finds himself on the lawn of heiress Helen (Essie Davis) and forges an unlikely friendship with the lonely woman.
Landry Jones outwardly portrays an erratic and unpredictable individual, but underneath there’s a certain childlike innocence about him, as though he doesn’t even realise when he’s done something wrong. It’s a complex and layered performance, and one that stands out even among an accomplished cast. There are also a lot of surprisingly quiet moments where his character is clearly stuck in his own mind. These are hard-hitting, but a bit overutilised.
Essie Davis doesn’t get given much to work with as the eccentric heiress Helen. You could say she’s a crazy cat lady, except she does subvert expectations a little by also owning a pack of dogs. Nonetheless, Davis works with the eccentric stereotype she’s provided, and gives a more subdued version of Landry Jones’s erratic energy.
Perhaps what makes Nitram such a grim watch is the fact that it’s purely observational in nature. It doesn’t really guide or even ask us to develop opinions one way or the other, to sympathise with the protagonist or condemn him. It just forces us to simply watch as his mental health spirals out of control and leads to a tragedy. It doesn’t offer up any solutions on how to prevent something like this from happening, but it does perfectly illustrate why the gun laws in place at the time were entirely inadequate.
This results, though, in a lack of social commentary on the film’s part. Early on, our protagonist attends a doctor’s appointment where he’s asked if he feels ‘normal’ on his medication, and his parents quickly sweep the prospect of therapy under the rug. This could have been an opportunity to advocate for better mental health services, to explore the reasons behind these events. There are multiple times throughout the film that statements or commentary could be made. Instead it just watches, detached, as the situation degenerates.
Its unwillingness to engage emotionally with its subjects and events left me feeling a bit cold and detached myself.
Nitram is in UK cinemas from 1st July.
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