Nitram review – intensely disquieting and extraordinary Port Arthur massacre film

If we ever arrive at the consensus that films should no longer challenge or provoke, or should not delve into the deepest and darkest of subjects, it will probably be time for artists to pack up shop and move on. This far into the history of cinema, after so many discussions of the worth of Holocaust dramas, documentaries about genocide and countless other bone-chilling examinations, conferred in the ancient human tradition of using art to contemplate our worst demons, it’s almost surreal that one feels inclined to begin a review of Nitram with the above justification.

And yet Justin Kurzel’s new film was always going to be controversial, dealing with an event that for some carries near incomprehensible trauma. It explores the life of Martin Bryant, who perpetrated the worst single-shooter mass killing in Australia’s history: the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, during which Bryant murdered 35 people and wounded 23 more in the small Tasmanian town. Screenwriter Shaun Grant – who also wrote Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang, two other films directed by Kurzel – constructs Nitram’s narrative in a highly self-conscious manner, aware that every sequence will be mined for potential implications.

Related: ‘I was incredibly scared of it’: Justin Kurzel on making Port Arthur massacre film Nitram

When, for instance, the lone gunman (whose name is never mentioned in the film – reflecting a modern approach intended to deny perpetrators notoriety) looks curiously at surfboards and his mother, played by Judy Davis, discourages this potentially healthy recreation (“I’m your mother, I love you, but surfing’s not for you”) the viewer wonders: are the film-makers suggesting this is of special significance? Comparable perhaps to that old question of whether Hitler’s life, and in turn the course of human history, would have gone differently if he’d been admitted to art school. It is an early example of Nitram’s non-didactic approach, refusing easy answers and compounding an eerie, queasy sense that pervades everything.

This heightening effect suits and challenges Kurzel’s intensely cerebral style, requiring all sorts of balancing acts. Kurzel and Grant recognise for example that their protagonist has mental health issues and is on antidepressants, but do not use this to excuse or explain his actions. They show two significant people in his life – his timid father (Anthony LaPaglia) and wealthy friend (Essie Davis, breathing new life into the “crazy cat lady” trope, except with dogs instead of felines) – falling away in the lead up to the massacre, but don’t suggest this necessarily tipped him over the edge.

They show Bryant as a belittled outcast, but do not say his actions constitute rebellion against society. They toy with the idea that something was deeply wrong with him from a young age, but resist the “demonic child” trope – which is the stuff of horror movies (including The Omen and The Exorcist) as well as Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which proposes its subject was born pure evil: a binary outlook made more interesting only by Ramsay’s consideration of the vilification experienced by his mother (Tilda Swinton).

In a significant scene in Nitram, so well executed they used it to structure the trailer, Judy Davis monologues about how, one day when her son was a child, during a trip to the shops, she was beside herself that she’d lost him, only to find the boy on the backseat of the car “looking up at me, laughing, laughing at my pain”. Grant wrote this scene unadorned, knowing it comes alive almost entirely on the strength of the performances (all of which are excellent).

A more significant scene, however, is the very first, based in the burns ward of a hospital, where a young Bryant is asked whether he’s learned his lesson about fiddling with firecrackers. The child responds yes, “but I’m still playing with ‘em”. It’s a smart touch, establishing from the outset that the protagonist understands his actions have repercussions, placing him as an “outsider” in general philosophy and attitude rather than through antisocial behaviour per se – though that comes later.

Presented in a tucked-in aspect ratio, which has a psychologically condensing effect, Nitram has the kind of lived-in aesthetic we’ve come to expect from Kurzel: worn, used, affected by time. Caleb Landry Jones’ wastoid energy ensconces the protagonist in a thick fog of peculiar untrustworthiness and his performance is darkly captivating throughout; like the film, Jones has a drifting intensity and a haunting ebb and flow.

Eventually, Nitram’s scuzzy aesthetic is bolstered by an ideological message that comes into view when the protagonist goes shopping for guns. Here, and through post-film text inserts reflecting on the National Firearms Agreement implemented after the massacre by John Howard, it is clear Kurzel and Grant have positioned the work inside the gun laws debate. They ask: why should a person like this be allowed to buy guns? And if I may extend that: why should anybody?

These are simple questions, perhaps, but they distinguish Nitram from other productions in this often morally problematic genre. Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired 2003 drama Elephant, for instance, is one of several films that builds to a climax depicting mass murder matter-of-factly. Scott Tobias typified the response of many critics when he praised the film for its “gorgeous, wide-open spaces that allow viewers the freedom to reflect without having a point-of-view imposed on them”.

But why is that a good thing? Or, to put it conversely, why is having a point-of-view about subjects as significant as gun control bad? For that matter: why make a film about a mass shooting that has no perspective, no agenda, just a desire to realistically recreate unspeakably awful things?

Where Tobias sees imposition, I see opportunity: to make a statement; to progress an important conversation using the tools of drama and everything that comes with it – from characters to story, performance and subtext. Recent developments in Texas remind us that laws put in place to improve society – in that instance, abortion rights – may be hard won, but can be taken away. We should not become complacent. Art plays a role in informing and pushing public conversation.

Related: Nitram star Caleb Landry Jones wins best actor award at Cannes for playing Port Arthur killer

Perhaps the ultimate value of Nitram has nothing to do with its qualities as an intensely disquieting tone poem – though on that level the film is brilliant, marking another extraordinary achievement from Kurzel, who has a penchant for evoking gut-sinking emotional atmosphere. Perhaps that value is reflected in its most frightening image – which isn’t of the protagonist looking menacing, or having a fruit cup at the Broad Arrow Cafe moments before beginning his rampage. It is a final text insert stating that there are now more firearms owned in Australia than there were in 1996.

Nitram will open 30 September in cinemas around Australia that are not affected by Covid restrictions. Screening details in Tasmania are still under discussion, to ensure any decisions are made with sensitivity to the community, a spokesperson said. The film will arrive on Stan later this year.