Nitram: inside the mind of a murderer

Film carefully deconstructs events that led up to Martin Bryant shooting dead 35 people in Tasmania

Thursday, 30th June — By Dan Carrier


Directed by Justin Kerzel
Certificate: 18

ATTEMPTING to get into the mindset of a murderer is a stock motivator for those in the crime genre. But here Justin Kerzel has picked a seemingly impossible incident to understand, and carefully deconstructed what happened. The viewer cannot help but feel a light being shone on a very dark corner of the human psyche.

Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) is the young man who has not reached the mental maturity to match his physical growth. He revels in playing with fireworks and winding up neighbours who ask him to stop.

He has no friends, and his inward nature exasperates his mother. The heavy-smoking, worn-out parent (Judy Davis) has the agony of her circumstances etched on each worried furrow and in every glint of moisture in her confused and sorry eyes.

The father (Anthony LaPaglia) is more forgiving. He accepts his son’s difficulties, and attempts to manage them with a compassionate and non-judgemental approach, a contrast to the sour matriarch, who feels deep shame at her son’s increasingly eccentric behaviour, and her guilt and shame at how she reacts to him.

We are gradually exposed to an unhappy domestic world.

Anthony LaPaglia in Nitram

Nitram is searching for a role, a sense of place and character: an adult who is intellectually and socially confused, he rolls from one misunderstood interaction to another. He decides to take up surfing, because he spots a girl he likes on a beach – but he can barely swim and his outsider status is enhanced by watching others together in the water, while he stands alone on dry land.

Nitram hits on a wheeze – he’ll push a lawnmower round the streets and raise money so his dad can fulfil a dream of buying a bed and breakfast.

He knocks on the door of a tumble-down mansion, owned by a retired, Gilbert and Sullivan-adoring actress Helen (Essie Davis).

Finally he has found another outsider who offers him companionship and steps in as a surrogate mother.

Nitram is based on the life and crimes of Martin Bryant, a man currently serving 35 life sentences in Australia. Bryant was responsible for shooting dead 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996.

Using this tragedy as a starting point should be uncomfortable viewing – and Kerzel has delivered on that.

It is no surprise the film caused disquiet in Tasmania, due to its potential to cause hurt. These worries are understood sensitively by the script, direction and the strong four lead performances.

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