There is always a sensitivity when films are made about true life crimes. You don’t want to aggrandise the killer nor exploit the acts gratuitously. Yet it is also undeniably true that people are fascinated by destructive events and the motives for unusual crimes. Can you present that in a way that walks that fine line?
Nitram tells the story of the man who committed the Port Arthur massacre, and what played into his mindset as he planned the crime. It basically asks the question, why?
There are two parts of me watching this. There is the part of me who was a kid who read everything I could about serial killers and poured through the internet for gruesome photos, fascinated by the extremes of it all. And there’s the adult I’ve become, who doesn’t find it extreme at all, just finds it wearily, exhaustingly familiar, the violence of men, their sense that they have the right to make their points on the bodies of others. The first part wants to know what the killer was like, what drove him, how he was able to arm himself like he did. And the second part doesn’t give a shit what this bastard was like, and knows that what drove him was quite simply that he wanted to and was too selfish to give a fuck who got hurt, and that he was able to arm himself like he did because as a white man he belonged to a privileged social group whose actions are not given the same scrutiny as the rest. Part of me really wanted to see this movie, and part of me worried that just by doing so I was contributing to the notoriety he so desired.
The filmmakers obviously felt that same worry, as he is not mentioned by name throughout the film. Nitram was a nickname he disliked, so that is the film title, as a big fuck you. Yet there is no getting around that the film is about him, and the title refers to him. They do make the right call by not actually showing the massacre.
However you might feel, Nitram is a good film. It is a profile of a man who is clearly not right in the head. Multiple diagnoses have been applied to the guy he’s based on, from a learning disability, to neurodivergence, to mental illness, to personality disorder. All anyone can agree on is he’s emotionally unstable and performs poorly academically and socially.
Caleb Landry Jones gives the performance of his career. Just superb. Portraying the main character with nuance and vulnerability without ever compromising on his violent and unempathic nature. This depiction doesn’t try to excuse or apologise for him – he has a supportive family, he doesn’t grow up in poverty or abuse, he is actually incredibly fortunate and lucky. Caleb’s portrayal is of someone who is aware that they are different on some fundamental level, that it is not simply that others think something is wrong with him, but he himself knows that there is, he just doesn’t know what it is and can’t fix it. He has the constant demanding nature of a narcissist, and the deep depressions that follow their frustration at their inability to have their every need met.
Essie Davis, that chameleon of the screen, shows up as Helen, the killer’s sole friend and benefactor. She’s a lonely older woman who has gone full Grey Gardens. Her large house is falling into ruin, while populated with the dozen dogs and cats she keeps as pets. She swans around in old costumes from her career on the stage, singing to old records. By accident of fate, she meets the main character, and his acceptance of her eccentricity is reciprocated by her acceptance of his oddness.
The other stellar performance in this is Judy Davis. She plays the mum of the main character. She is sharp, cold, and criticising, and at first I was worried the film was gonna use the tired old trope of “Mummy made me do it”. For decades it became behavioural science gospel that mass murderers all had domineering mothers, with implied cause and effect. In fact, killers were likely to the blame their mothers for their crime for a more obvious reason, that violent men usually blame women for the violence they perpetrate. And I didn’t want to see Judy’s character set up like that in the film.
I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case. Yes, she is short, sharp and relentless, but she is also clearly exhausted, weary to the bones, and ground down by years of grief from her son. She also seems to have her suspicions, which his father doesn’t, that her son is dangerous. She tells a story a little way into the film of when her son was 5, and he turned a game they were playing nasty, and just when she was in the most fear and anguish she could imagine, he began to laugh. And since then, she has never trusted him. There is more wrong with him than simple oddness or slowness that a mother could easily accept. She is relentless because she is frightened of what he will do if he doesn’t stick rigidly to her instructions, she is domineering because she is scared of what choices he might make on his own, and she is sharp and cold because she is impatient from years and years of toil, managing his destructive behaviour.
This is a hard subject to treat sensitively, but Nitram handles it with care, nuance, and honesty.