Based on the life of notorious Australian mass shooter, Martin Bryant, Nitram stars Caleb Laundry Jones as the titular “Nitram” in the days leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, in which he claimed the lives of 35 people and injured 23 more in the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history.
From a technical standpoint, Nitram is very good. The cinematography works well to bring out the unusual and unnerving aspects of very familiar domestic settings, disrupting the mundane and adding to a sense of tension and discomfort.
The sound design is very effective in this regard too, with the ordinary background noise of everyday life being amplified and moved to the foreground in a way that adds to the sense of rising tension and creates a sensory overload of sorts, further subverting the commonplace experiences of life and making them something alien and confrontational. The acting is also great across the board, helping the film accurately represent Bryant’s shift from troubled youth to unrepentant murderer.
However, as a story, Nitram lacks the clarity and focus it needs to really successfully engage with its contentious subject matter. It’s evident that the writers wanted to handle the controversial topic of the Port Arthur massacre sensitively, but the end result drags its feet making its points, so that the reason Bryant was chosen as a subject in the first place is unclear.
At its worst, the film almost feels voyeuristic, avoiding discussion of the topics at the heart of the matter in favour of focusing on a convenient caricature of mental illness. At its best, Nitram pays lip service to the institutional failings that helped create a monster – but even these scenes are too few and far between to make an impact on the narrative.
Director Justin Kurzel presents an ambitious piece that attempts to tackle a taboo topic with care, but falls short of offering any substantial insight or exploration of the atrocity it documents. It’s technically very polished, with cinematography and sound design that perfectly create a sense of mounting tension and dread, and supported by a talented cast, but as a narrative it lacks the substance that a cinematic exploration of this scope truly needed.
Nitram is released in select cinemas on 1st July 2022.
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Watch the trailer for Nitram here: