Nitram Review

A dramatisation of the events leading up to the Port Arthur Massacre of April 1996, in which troubled loner Martin Bryant (Landry Jones) opened fire at the popular tourist spot, killing 
35 people and wounding 23 more.

by Nikki Baughan |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jul 2022

Original Title:


The shocking events of April 1996, in which a lone gunman opened fire at Tasmania’s popular Port Arthur tourist site — the worst massacre in Australia’s history — have left an indelible mark on the country and its culture. The immediate aftermath saw the introduction of strict gun laws and, in the years since, the event has been explored through music, plays and podcasts.

Now comes Nitram, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s visceral portrait of then-28-year-old gunman Martin Bryant and the events leading up to that fateful day. There is, of course, an obvious question as to whether we need another one of these soul-searching studies of the motivations behind mass murder, which undeniably give the perpetrator their desired spotlight and pulls focus from the victims. (In fairness to the filmmakers, this new drama never names Bryant, who is called by his supposed school nickname, ‘Nitram’, and the violence is — rightly — kept firmly off screen.)


And this portrayal of Bryant could hardly be less glamorous; as portrayed by a mesmerising Caleb Landry Jones in a Cannes Best Actor-winning performance, the young man is slow, socially inept and prone to temper tantrums, clearly suffering from undiagnosed mental-health issues that see him shunned as “weird”. His father (a gentle Anthony LaPaglia) tries to stay patient, his mother (Judy Davis, outstanding) can barely hide her frustrations. A chance meeting with an older, wealthy woman, Helen (a multi-layered Essie Davis), leads to an unconventional friendship; when Helen dies in a car crash, 
she leaves Bryant her sprawling home and a life-changing amount of cash. Following the later suicide of his father after a failed real-estate deal, the already tightly wound Bryant begins to make his deadly plans in a sadly familiar montage of gun-purchasing, target-practice, and the playing of old records at super-slow speed.

There’s no denying the level of skill on display in both the exceptional performances and stunning craft.

While Nitram may follow in the well-worn footsteps of other mass-murder movies, attempting to plot a logical path from difficult psychology to extreme act, there’s no denying the level of skill on display in both the exceptional performances and stunning craft. Working again from a screenplay by his Snowtown and True History Of The Kelly Gang writer Sean Grant, Kurzel (who seems drawn to tales of violent misfits) manages to avoid being overly sympathetic to Bryant, while highlighting the failures of care and law that ultimately enabled him to live out his darkest fantasies.

The film reaches its inevitable fever pitch when Bryant fulfils what he regards as his true potential; on-screen text then grimly informs us that firearm ownership levels in Australia have never been higher. Yet it’s difficult to know exactly who the film is for. It could certainly be read as a sensitive memorial, or a potent warning that this could so easily happen again. But there’s also an uneasy sense that it is playing into the infamy-hungry hands of the real-life Bryant who — currently serving 35 life sentences with no chance of parole — would surely approve of being back at the centre of the frame.

Exceptional performances, particularly from Caleb Landry Jones in the lead, and a sensitive touch from director Justin Kurtzel can’t shake the unease of giving yet another cinematic spotlight to a real-life mass murderer.
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