Nitram (2022) Film Review

Nitram

Why this movie received minimal promotion on its US release earlier this year, I do not know. Why this movie has not been put forward for end-of-year awards I do not know. Landry Jones (who won Best Actor at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival) and Judy Davis should be raking them in. The subject matter obviously makes it a difficult sell. But it’s almost like it was decided beforehand that this movie was dead in the water with respect to capturing a wide American audience.

Australian director Justin Kurzel’s understated masterpiece is based on the real-life Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre of 1996 and, more specifically, the disturbed young man Martin Bryant who committed the atrocity. Kurzel does not show the massacre itself, where Bryant shot and killed 35 people at the Tasmanian tourist site with a semi-automatic rifle that he bought legally without a license – the Australian government took immediate steps to enforce new laws on gun control following the incident. What he does, and does superbly, is to show us twentysomething Martin’s (an incredible performance by American actor Caleb Landry Jones doing a very credible Australian accent) life and family dynamics in the years leading up to the tragedy.

A “strange” boy from the beginning, he was mercilessly bullied at school, the school kids giving him the nickname “Nitram” (Martin spelled backward); he spends his days either wandering or setting off fireworks, inviting the neighborhood kids to participate! Meanwhile, all the years of taking care of an angry and unstable child have taken an enormous toll on his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPlagia), who are now shadows of their former selves. LaPaglia’s dad, a depressed shell of a man, is pushed over the edge when his dream of owning a guesthouse on the ocean is destroyed. The scene when he discovers that the property is no longer his is so appallingly cruel it is almost unwatchable. As for Davis, as the mom who holds the family together, she gives what is probably her most outstanding performance, which means it’s one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. Exhausted to her very core, she all but sleepwalks through her days.

Nitram

Briefly, Martin’s luck changes when he meets an older eccentric heiress (a marvelous Essie Davis) who lives in a Grey Gardens-type mansion. It is at an introductory lunch (held eerily at the site of the impending massacre) that Davis (Judy), in a spellbinding speech, tells Davis (Essie) of the first time she realized, the first time she KNEW, that her little boy was different.

Unfortunately, Martin’s time with his eccentric benefactor is shot-lived and this, together with his father’s escalating depression leads to a downward spiral.

Why this movie received minimal promotion on its US release earlier this year, I do not know. Why this movie has not been put forward for end-of-year awards I do not know. Landry Jones (who won Best Actor at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival) and Judy Davis should be raking them in. The subject matter obviously makes it a difficult sell. But it’s almost like it was decided beforehand that this movie was dead in the water with respect to capturing a wide American audience.

If so, they were wrong. “Nitram” is one of the best films of the year and essential viewing.

Now Streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV + and Hulu.

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