Movie Review – Nitram

Nitram (2022)
Written by Shaun Grant
Directed by Justin Kunzel

There is no horror that man can imagine worse than what he does to his own kind. It can feel like this moment in history is the worst it’s ever been, but that’s simply because we think things most powerfully as we experience them. Memory has been proven to be one of the most fail-ridden human functions, and imagination is always based on present anxieties. We still have such a limited understanding of the human mind, and people with severe mental disabilities can be frightening because we lack that comprehension. When someone does something genuinely horrible or commits an atrocity, we want to reduce things down to concepts of “good” and “evil,” but if we are honest violent individual acts are rarely able to be defined in such terms. There is a justified fear of looking into the eyes of someone who could apparently kill dozens without cracking, but only through understanding can we ever hope to prevent these things from repeating themselves.

Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) is an intellectually disabled man living in Port Arthur, Tasmania. He’s obsessed with fireworks, much to his neighbor’s disdain, and still lives at home with his Mum and Dad (Judy Davis & Anthony LaPaglia, respectively). His parents don’t want to acknowledge that many of Nitram’s problems are mirrored in their behaviors. Dad applies for a business loan to buy a bed & breakfast with big plans to have Nitram help him run it. Maybe this will straighten the boy out, finally. Instead, Nitram becomes obsessed with getting a surfboard that his mother won’t buy for him. He sets out to mow lawns for money when he meets Helen (Essie Davis), a wealthy heiress who hires him to walk her dogs. Nitram moves in with Helen, and his mother warns the woman by telling her an anecdote from Nitram’s childhood. He feigned being missing and showed pleasure at his mother’s genuine distress & worry. Things spiral downward, and access to mountains of cash and lax gun laws lead to a day that has haunted Port Arthur and Australia since.

Should we make movies about mass shooters? I don’t know the definitive answer to that film and would argue that there isn’t one. It’s a matter of personal taste. I don’t assign morality to art similarly; I do material physical actions in reality. There’s undoubtedly art that makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and even some I refuse to look at because I don’t like how I anticipate I would feel. Every person is entitled to boundaries, especially over something so horrific. Not every person should see Nitram, but anyone who wants to see it should be able to. I don’t believe the movie ever glorifies Nitram (based on real-life mass shooter Martin Bryant), but it does create a space where the audience can have empathy for him. No mentally stable person would do what he did, so if we agree that he is insane, how can we blame him entirely for this. If a person cannot process empathy, it doesn’t mean they are some demon crawled up from Hell. It means they have a deficiency of some kind and need medical help & therapy. If you apply these things early enough and with care, you could likely avoid an explosion of violence. It’s not 100% guaranteed but ignoring an obvious problem and hoping it will fix itself doesn’t have too great of a track record.

In making a piece of art like Nitram, you have to consider the feelings of the victims’ families. We can intellectually distance ourselves from the visceral nature of violence because we have many filters happening. I am on the other side of the world; I was 15 when this happened and didn’t learn about it until a decade later. I didn’t lose a family member that day. All these things give me an emotional distance so I can impose my objectivity on the film. However, I was a public school teacher for a decade, and thoughts of mass shootings in America are an almost daily thought at this point. It is difficult to watch Nitram stocking up on weapons with a duffel bag of cash. You will squirm in your seat when you see Nitram walk into the place he’s about to shoot up, order some food, and sit down, contemplating how he will execute these people. But, I would argue that for humanity to solve this problem, we have to look at it square in the eye and accept what we see, not as Truth but as an understanding of psychopathy. I want to know why people do this to help ensure it never happens again.

The four core cast members here are delivering exemplary performances. Judy Davis is painfully cold towards her son, but we come to understand why. She does not feel safe being vulnerable around someone she has seen take pleasure in her suffering. We have to ask why she didn’t do something earlier when it’s revealed he has been like this since childhood. Anthony LaPaglia is stunning as a man whose spirit is completely broken. I think Nitram’s mental health problems can be seen in his father, who has shunned violence but still has the same crippling depressive episodes as his child. The pathetic nature of Dad’s mental problems is a source of rage for Nitram because he fears that is what he will become with age. Helen is living her life in a haze, desperate for connection beyond her pack of dogs, and Nitram can be sweet & charming when he wants to be.

Caleb Landry Jones is the stand-out performance here, though. The violence he commits on screen is very minimal. Instead, Jones’ performance is full of tension and rage bubbling to the surface. He’s a person very aware of his own mental problems, but his grasp on them is so tenuous. The worse things get in his life, the more he loosens and eventually stops caring about reality & control at all. He simply wants to be like his fireworks, burning bright and exploding. Unfortunately, the adults who know him best are so withdrawn and let him rage. One area where the film pointedly doesn’t seek to find compassion and empathy is in lax gun laws.

When Nitram purchases the weapons he’ll use in his massacre, the salesman asks if he will register the guns. Nitram is honest and says he is not. The salesman ponders this for a moment and responds that if Nitram had been buying a handgun, he couldn’t have sold it to him unregistered, but these weapons (a semi-automatic rifle and shotgun) did not fall under that law, so the sale goes on unfettered. In the film’s coda, it is pointed out that legislation to stop that from happening was passed, but not a single territory has ever fully complied with the law. Right-wing & neoliberal governments have failed to enforce it, so Australia’s people just have to hope it never happens again. A massive gun buyback program after the Port Arthur massacre points to a society that wants to collectively stop this.

Healing a broken psyche like Nitram’s is extremely difficult. Creating & enforcing laws around deadly firearms is not. When conservatives cry “mental health” after a shooting, it’s never in good faith. You will never see them push for expanded funding for mental health programs. Reagan infamously shut down mental health facilities coast to coast in the 1980s leading to an explosion in homelessness. Health care should cover mental health free on the point of delivery, so no one ever has to go without it. But that is not a solution to this gun problem. We should rid our societies of weapons of war; there’s no place for them if we hope to build a better world. There’s a catch, though; we have to disarm the police and armies as we disarm the people. 

It seems easy for us to recognize the evil in the acts someone like Martin Bryant committed. Yet, we have devised all sorts of rhetorical techniques to defend mass systemic violence that kills more people in even more obscene ways than any mass shooter ever could. Environmental pollution, police & military violence, drone bombings, torturous prison systems, and economic systems leave people destitute in the streets. These are objectively worse than a single mass shooter because no mass shooter could ever destroy so many people’s lives as the systems that rule over us do. Nitram’s life was destroyed by that system, and that system is responsible for much of what Nitram did. We’ve established he’s not in complete control of his mental capacities, so he needed a society that recognized that and did something about it early. How often have we seen on the news or read after a bloody massacre that the killer had a troubled history and showed all the signs of someone experiencing a break from reality? Pretty much every time it happens. We have to keep the guns out of these people’s hands and get them help. It’s that simple. You do that, and the Nitrams of the world become relics of a dark period in human development. 

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