A difficult drama subject, but there are 4 knockout performances in Stan's new movie.
The telling of true crime is never a pleasant experience for victims and those close to unlawful acts.
But that hasn’t stopped audiences being fascinated with retellings of killers such as Jack the Ripper, Bonnie & Clyde, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Dennis Nilsen, Fred & Rose West, Charles Sobhraj, Aileen Wuornos….
Australian drama has dramatised stories around Ivan Milat, the Peter Falconio murder, Underbelly, Chopper Reed and Snowtown, to name a few, while true crime podcasts sit at the top of the heap. What drives people to murder, how were they caught, and can we ever learn anything from it?
It was probably inevitable that somebody would address the massacre at Port Arthur in 1996 in which 35 people were killed and 23 others were wounded -it’s just a question of when and how.
Nitram is one of two projects to attempt such, directed by Justin Kurzel. Filmed in Victoria, the focus is on a young Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) and what drew him to the events of that horrific day, still etched in the memories of many Australians.
One of the most disturbing scenes is the opening, in which real-life newsreel shows a 12 year old Bryant in a Tasmanian Burns Unit having been licked by a firecracker mishap. When the reporter suggests he will never play with crackers again, the young boy rejects the notion. It’s a harrowing glimpse of what is to come…
The film, scripted by Shaun Grant, is largely a four hander with American Caleb Landry Jones in the title role (there’s never a hint of US accent) as a 20-something misfit living with ageing parents. Socially inept, rejected by girls, he is rebel, aimless, smothered by his mother (Judy Davis) but devoted to his ailing father (Anthony La Paglia).
When attempting lawn-mowing odd jobs he befriends Helen (Essie Davis), an older, eccentric woman who lives alone in a rambling house full of dogs. As if needing each another, they find a bizarre middle ground and a strange, undefined relationship forges around them. But it’s not one that has the approval of Bryant’s mother.
In Grant’s hands the material is staged almost as improvisation. Dialogue overlaps, is sometimes mumbled, silences are embraced and the camera is sometimes a distant observer. This makes it even more real.
Added to this are four knockout performances. Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony La Paglia and Essie Davis (who looks like she has just stepped out of Grey Gardens) are exemplary in difficult roles. It is necessarily bleak, a story where we know the outcome, yet it’s difficult to look away.
As other articles have noted, the final outcome is not portrayed, but there is no denying what transpires. Bryant’s name is also not uttered, with the title his name in reverse (you’ll discover why). So unlike gangster dramas where the cameras sensationalise gore and body counts, this attempts to explain how we got there.
Whether that qualifies it as entertainment is for the viewer to decide. Nitram won’t be for everybody.
But there’s no denying the level of craft and storytelling, which is staggeringly compelling.
Nitram screens Wednesday, 24 November on Stan.