Nitram is the Martin Bryant film which sent shivers down everyone’s spine at the mere prospect. Justin Kurzel’s film about the perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 – Nitram is Martin backwards – has been in cinemas for a few weeks now but last week it started streaming on Stan and it should command the largest possible audience: not only is it the most significant piece of Australian cinema to make it to the streamers but it will hold its own with all-comers.
Caleb Landry Jones’ performance as the catastrophic and piteous anti-hero is a thing of wonder – idiomatically flawless, and towering in its kaleidoscopic intensity and with a riveting and at the same time almost unwatchable magnificence in its range of fragmentation and bewilderment. And he is held up at every point by an exceptional supporting cast, especially Judy Davis as his mother and Essie Davis as the woman who becomes enthralled by him. And Kurzel directs like a supreme master with an absolute command of tempo and a power of restraint that nonetheless pulls no punches in its breathtaking sense of inevitable tragedy.
In Nitram he takes a true life horror story beyond the reach of legend. We begin with the ‘historic’ footage of a pretty little blond boy who has been hospitalized for burns suffered by playing with firecrackers who says – at some tinkling edge of autism – that he is going to keep playing with firecrackers.
The usually handsome Landry Jones forces his face into a map of misprisions and confusions and blind swaggering surrenders that come from the profoundest depths and his body, normally buffed, is pallid and slack with lack of use. His mother Judy Davis in one of her greatest performances is all waspishness and barely controlled disdain. She tells him to change his clothes for the dinner table and he strips to his underpants and just sits there. Davis’s throat is a looming monument of ruin, her voice a bitten off snarl of rebuke.
Her husband, Nitram’s father, is betrayed by a smarmy estate agent girl – a deadly accurate characterisation – and Anthony LaPaglia is superb at capturing this gentle man’s softness and hopelessness. There is a breathtaking scene in which Nitram pummels the pillows around his passive dad’s head in a terrible premonition of the vengeance to come.
We forget how much of this story we know and have repressed. Landry Jones meets an older rich woman played with a desolating absence of glamour by Essie Davis in a performance every bit as fine as Judy Davis’s in its expression of regret and pain but with its own power of yearning as she plays and sings Nitram ‘Tit Willow’ and other hits from Gilbert and Sullivan and lavishes money on him and pushes the dream of going to Hollywood.
Later we watch and listen as the avenger-to-be plays Gilbert and Sullivan at an excruciating slow speed, its carnivalesque gaiety an anthem of doom and a desecration of the sanity on which comic timing depends.
But Nitram is a hell of a film with every kind of of haywire enactment of a mind diseased which is also stately in its unfolding and at every point composed and deliberate so that the audience has an absolute trust in Kurzel and in the fact that what we are watching is a work of art and therefore an image of truth however ghastly the constituent elements may be.
It helps that Nitram is shot with a consistent power of delineation and effect of formal beauty, of implicit aesthetic intensity, by Germain McMicking.
It’s one of the best Australian films that has ever been made and the audacity of the endeavour and the risk of bad taste at best and exploiting a collective trauma at worst is resolutely stared down.
There are greater horrors in the distant sound of guns and the obscenity of the oily ease with which they are sold and this allays all the conventional fears though, God knows, Nitram has pity and terror to such an extent that it would satisfy a Sophocles as well as his critical shadow in the Aristotle of the Poetics.
It’s weird to think it but the sheer achievement of Nitram is enough to single-handedly create a sense of appreciation for the Australian cinema and especially for our actors who can give such emotional reality to the decay and querulousness of humankind and – at some far off edge of subplot tragedy – of womankind. The performances by Judy Davis – the way she projects an unhappiness and a disappointment deeper than any function she may have as wife and mother – and Essie Davis with her strange Liebestod of discontent and of a life that has fallen into the yellow sere (to use a phrase from Macbeth) are remarkable in a way that cannot be overstated.
And in fact everyone in Nitram – the slack, smiling surfer who mocked Nitram when he was a boy, the travel agent woman (all the floating sketches of felt Australian life) – are given substance and shape.
And this means that the violence in Nitram is at all points secondary to its psychological and emotive credibility. This is the world, Kurzel insinuates, that created this character. Nothing is surprising about it except for the weirdness of the representation of derangement and pain and the intimacy – the attention to the small atrocities as well as the monumental ones – creates a sense of awe because they represent such waves of sympathy, such waves of horror.
It is Caleb Landry Jones’ film as much as Justin Kurzel’s because his performance as Nitram is so compelling, so observed, and at the same time comes with a shock of recognition that also has the power of revelation.
The accent is just the start of this but it is flawless. How a Texan with those emphatic vowels can produce such a convincing swerve of an Australian accent is a bit beyond belief.
It is the voice of a young man who hardly has any faith in the reality of his own existence. He barely knows where ‘here’ is and yet he proceeds to impose his pain and excruciation in this ghost of a language that has been bequeathed to him. But what a performance, what a film.
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