True crime reporting is never a pleasant experience for victims and those close to wrongdoing.
But that hasn’t stopped audiences from being captivated by the retellings of killers like Jack the Ripper, Bonnie & Clyde, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Dennis Nilsen, Fred & Rose West, Charles Sobhraj, Aileen Wuornos. .. .
Australian drama has dramatized stories about Ivan Milat, the murder of Peter Falconio, Underbelly, Chopper Reed and Snowtown, to name a few, while true crime podcasts sit at the top of the heap. What drives people to kill, how did they get caught, and can we ever learn anything from that?
It was probably inevitable that someone would talk about the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed and 23 others injured – it’s just a matter of when and how.
Nitram is one of two projects to attempt this, directed by Justin Kurzel. Filmed in Victoria, the focus is on a young Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones) and what led him to the events of that horrific day, still etched in the memories of many Australians.
One of the creepiest scenes is the opening, in which real-life newsreel footage shows a 12-year-old Bryant in a Tasmanian burns unit who has been licked down by a firecracker accident. When the reporter suggests that he never play with crackers again, the boy rejects the idea. It’s a heartbreaking glimpse of what’s to come…
The film, scripted by Shaun Grant, is largely a four-hander with American Caleb Landry Jones in the title role (there’s never a hint of an American accent) as a 20-year-old misfit living with aging parents. Socially inept, rejected by girls, he is rebellious, aimless, stifled by his mother (Judy Davis) but devoted to his sick father (Anthony La Paglia).
When he tries odd jobs mowing the lawn, he befriends Helen (Essie Davis), an eccentric older woman who lives alone in a house full of dogs. As if they need each other, they find a bizarre middle ground and a strange and indefinite relationship is forged around them. But he’s not one Bryant’s mother approves of.
In Grant’s hands the material is staged almost like an improvisation. Dialogue overlaps, is sometimes mumbled, silences are embraced and the camera is sometimes a distant observer. This makes it even more real.
Added to this are four knockout performances. Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony La Paglia and Essie Davis (who looks like she just stepped out of Gray Gardens) are exemplary in difficult roles. It’s necessarily bleak, a story whose outcome we know, yet it’s hard to look away.
As other articles have noted, the end result is not represented, but there is no denying what happens. Bryant’s name is also left unspoken, with the title spelling her name backwards (you’ll find out why). So unlike gangster dramas where the cameras sensationalize blood and body counts, this one attempts to explain how we got there.
Whether that qualifies as entertainment is for the viewer to decide. Nitram it won’t be for everyone
But there’s no denying the level of skill and storytelling, which is incredibly compelling.
Nitram airs Wednesday November 24th on Stan.