Aa pivotal moment in this calmly gripping drama from Justin Kurzel, director of snow city† Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang, a young man walks into a gun shop with a bag of money and walks out with an arsenal of firearms. What’s remarkable is how gruesome the scene actually is, with its casual talk of ammunition throwing and “nice” carrying cases. Yes, there is a slightly tacky moment when the young man reveals that he is unlicensed but that is circumvented when he agrees not to register his purchases. So the deal is done; hands are shaken, money is exchanged (“a pleasure, thanks for your business”) and deadly weapons are sent to a world where no one is safe.
For most of its term, Nitram is not about gun control – or at least not to appear to be. Instead, it presents a thoughtfully intimate account of a misfit’s late coming-of-age struggle, beautifully portrayed by Caleb Landry Joneswho deserved Best Actor Awards at the Cannes Film Festival 2021 and at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards, where Kurzel’s film swept the board. This spiky, emotionally unstable figure, mockingly nicknamed Nitram (his name is reversed), lives with his mother and father in the suburbs of Australia in the 1990s. His father (played in almost unrecognizable trampled form by Anthony LaPaglia) loves his son, but struggles to control his reckless impulses, such as giving children fireworks at the local school. Meanwhile, his mother (Judy Davis, with her jagged nerves on the outside) radiates a dogged annoyance and resigned herself to the defeat over the behavior of her wayward offspring.
When Nitram clumsily begins to mow the lawn, he is greeted by hastily closed doors until he meets Helen (Essie Davis). Helen, an eccentric woman of wealth with a menagerie of dogs and cats, buys the overgrown boy’s clothes and a car and allows him to move in – to break up with his parents. For a while this odd couple seems to be enjoying an off-kilter Harold and Maude†style relationship. But the honeymoon can’t last long, and Nitram’s destructive tendencies soon leave him alone in the house, with his thoughts and her money. Meanwhile, his father’s dreams of setting up a bed and breakfast in the countryside are backfired, sending him into depression, much to his son’s horror.
Screenwriter Shaun Grant, who previously collaborated with Kurzel on snow city and True History of the Kelly Gang, started working on the script for Nitram, which he calls “an anti-gun film,” after being in the US in 2018 after two mass shootings and seeing a former athlete on TV vigorously defending his right to own a semi-automatic shotgun. recalling the Port Arthur Massacre of 1996Still hanging over his homeland like a dark cloud (it was the worst mass shooting in Australian history, killing 35 and injuring 23), Grant decided to write a script around that still raw wound. It would, he hoped, lead to “the public, especially those who are pro-gun, sitting next to a character who clearly shouldn’t have access to firearms and watch because they can access them so easily”.
For better and for worse, Nitramthat woke up great consternation in Tasmania for daring – or perhaps suspecting – to dramatize such horrific recent history does just that. It puts the public in a very uncomfortable position to see a young man’s mental health problems accelerate inexorably from a personal problem to a national catastrophe through the insane addition of easily accessible weapons. Impressively, the film avoids portraying its central character – a stranger of remorse who replaces empathy with aggression – as monstrous or sympathetic. He may have dealt with mock bullying as a kid, but when the surfers he pathetically hopes to find favors give him the cold shoulder, we understand why.
This is how it should be for a movie that ultimately isn’t about his titular character (or his unnamed real-life inspiration), whose crimes are kept out of the picture. We never see the havoc he wreaks, and we don’t need to. All the horror that the film needs to tell its story is present in that gun shop.
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