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Nitram – movie review

Movie: Nitram
Released: September 2021

Rating 3.0 stars

We approached this film with a keen interest, fully aware of the controversy and sensitivities around its delicate subject matter. It portrays the life of the convicted perpetrator of the tragic mass shooting incident in 1996 at Port Arthur in Tasmania. As someone who wasn’t living in Australia at the time of this incident, it was interesting for me to delve into it from a historical perspective. And a timely emergence of this movie at first seemed like a good way to become acquainted with this history.

The community directly affected by the incident—35 were killed and 23 others were seriously injured—were very much against the making of this movie. Even through 25 years has passed, the wounds are still raw and they would rather not reignite all the pain and memories experienced by the victims and their families but also the questionable humanisation of the person responsible for such unfathomable monstrous actions.

The brutal killer, Martin Bryant was 25 years old at the time and ‘Nit-ram’, we learn, is Martin spelt backwards, the derogatory nickname he was given at school. Bryant was subsequently convicted for the massacre and is currently serving 35 life sentences plus 1,652 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

It’s quite clear from the accounts of his early adolescence and subsequent psychiatric assessments during the trial that this was a deranged person of massively unsound mind and diminished mental capacity. He was declared by forensic psychiatrist during the case to have had an IQ of 66 and the intellectual capacity of an 11-year old child. So what benefit could come from telling the story of this flawed, non-functioning being or contextualising and recreating the events leading up to that horrific fateful day 25 years ago?

Intentions of the movie

Director Justin Kurzel read Shaun Grant’s screenplay and somehow felt compelled to make this movie, explaining that this retelling would be done sensitively, and not offering any excuses or justifications for the heinous acts. So what has this movie served to achieve then?

This re-telling covers certain key aspects and moments in the killer’s life, providing a certain insight into his social circumstances and state of mind. We see the young Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) and his tenuous but protective relationship with his mother and father (played by Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), his tantrum outbursts, his inability to cope with consequences of his mood swings and actions. We see his attempt to eventually make himself useful by offering to mow the lawns of his neighbours.

And then the crucial relationship is established with a rich, reclusive, eccentric benefactor Helen Harvey (Essie Davis) an heiress to part of the Tattersall lottery estate who curiously takes a liking to him. When Helen dies in a fatal car accidental in which Bryant somehow survives, he is left a significant fortune which affords him some international travel and then the means to amass his arsenal of firearms which eventually become the murder weapons.

Yes, the movie remains respectfully ‘tasteful’, if one can use that word to describe the restraint in not actually portraying the numerous acts of cold-blooded killing. But it is sorely unsatisfactory in the way it merely stirs up all the unanswered questions as to why the event could have happened at all.

Without directly pointing fingers, it alludes to systemic social failures that would have allowed such an unstable and potentially dangerous person to have operated freely in society. Left unsupervised and enabled by access to loads of money and such easy acquisition of dangerous semi-automatic firearms, he was a ticking time bomb that would inevitably cause much destruction.

In this portrayal of the story, we weren’t meant to focus on the aftermath and traumatic consequences felt by the victims, but instead we are inserted as witnesses to see how the conventional institutional safeguards that could have prevented failed that particular community in Tasmania.

In a pivotal scene where Bryant’s mother meets Helen for the first time, they discuss how ‘special’ he was when his mother divulges what a terror he really is when relating an incident when he was 5. He had hid himself away to scare her and when she became distraught at having lost her child, he could only laugh gleefully, relishing in her pain.

This was meant to be an insightful glimpse into a socially unevolved child’monster’ that needed close watch yet we see scenes where his therapist tries to recklessly get him off his meds, we see him driving the car given to him by Helen without a driver’s licence and there he is flaunting bags of obscene amounts of cash without drawing any suspicion or raising any security concerns.

Questions about accuracy

Certain details of the story have been left out or perhaps modified for easier dramatic digestion. For example Helen’s mother apparently lived in the house with Helen and Bryant yet she is non-existent in the film. Bryant’s father was  supposedly the trustee for the half a million dollar bequest from Helen and yet that is not evident. On the eve of massacre day, Bryant had a girldfiend who dined with him and his mother  but she has been removed.

So if this film was meant to give you a neutral. unadorned and sensitively presented, balanced and non-sensationalised understanding of the context and circumstances behind a murderer’s mind, these artistic liberties taken in deviating from the facts don’t come across well.

Gun control in Australia

When this massacre occurred the case for effectively tightening up gun control laws was swiftly addressed and championed by the then Prime Minister John Howard. Within days of the Port Arthur massacre, a new National Firearms Agreement put into place between Australian Commonwealth and state governments authorising the buy-back and destruction of 640,000 firearms, including many semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. This decisive and successful gun control initiative is often trotted out whenever we hear of a significant mass shooting incident in the USA which is gripped by inaction, huge opposition from a pro-gun lobby and a lack of political will to address it. 

However, the postscript of the movie points out that while that landmark National Firearms Agreement remains in place in Australia, its compliance by states remains dismal such that there are now more fire arms in the country than there were back in 1996. If this was such a key point in the motivation for making the film, why limit it to just the one-line postscript?

So is there a better alternative, as an artistic and social endeavour?

From the perspective of both the victims of the Port Arthur massacre and potential future victims of the next mass shooting, would it not have been more effective to do a documentary examining various aspects of the systemic social failures that contributed to the killings? Perhaps such documentaries may already have been done which we aren’t aware of, but it seems like this would be more productive in seeking the answers and lobbying for concrete action to ensure a similar incident won’t happen again.

Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine comes to mind. While that seminal documentary may not have been successful in progressing the cause of gun control in USA, it at least presented the facts and pertinent questions to addressing the societal and political failures in a more purposeful way to bring some focus to the situation that needed to be addressed.

Surely the resulting laudable nuanced acting performances from Judy Davis or Caleb Landry Jones (who secured a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for this role) can’t have been the film-maker’s shallow objectives?

In this particular case, I can’t help but align my sympathies with the victims and their families in questioning the worth of making this movie at all.