Before production even began, Nitram copped its fair share of criticism. The controversial new film from director Justin Kurzel unpacks the lead-up to the Port Arthur Massacre on April 28, 1996, in which lone gunman Martin Bryant went on a shocking spree in Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding 23 others.
25 years later and the chain of events is still raw in the minds of a community torn apart and the nation at large, with many concerned a film about the perpetrator would open old wounds and deliver what he sought on that fateful day – notoriety.
“It’s been tricky,” admits Kurzel, whose directorial debut Snowtown centred on the Snowtown murders in and around Adelaide, South Australia in the 1990s.
“With Snowtown, we went through [support service] Victims of Crime. They were an incredibly effective conduit between us and those who wanted to understand more about the film and ask us questions. Unfortunately, the Victims of Crime Service in Tasmania refused to have engagement with us.”
Having lived on the Apple Isle for the past four years, Kurzel is aware of and sensitive to the lingering trauma.
“My wife [Essie Davis] is from Tasmania, and we’ve been coming back and forth for 25 years. In that time you meet many people who have been affected by the shootings, so I’ve had discussions, even after Nitram was announced… It’s been about trying to be as available as possible, but at the same time respecting there are those who don’t believe a film like this should be made, and we completely understand that.”
With that in mind and in deference to the local community, Nitram was filmed in Geelong in Victoria, and many of the main players are not named on-screen. Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia as the protagonist’s parents are simply “Mum” and “Dad”. Only his friend Helen (Davis), a wealthy heiress who bonded with the young man, remains the same.
Despite these measures, both Film Victoria and Screen Australia declined to contribute state or federal funding for the project. Though that didn’t deter Kurzel from making what he feels is an important film with the support of Stan and the Melbourne Film Festival’s Premiere Fund.
“At the end of the day, you have to tread sensitively. But you also have to believe in why you’re making it,” he says.
“I think that with film, writing, painting and music, there’s opportunity to look at difficult subject matter and dark chapters that we may have experienced and have a discussion about it, and feel as though there’s safety in that.”
The ‘why’ of Nitram is housed firmly in shining a spotlight on gun violence, rather than fostering any kind of sympathy for the devil.
“I understand a community’s wish to forget the man’s name, but to forget the event risks it repeating itself and I would much prefer our reminder to be a film rather than another news report,” explains screenwriter Shaun Grant of his script, written in frustration at the prevalent gun violence in his US home-away-from-home.
“You’re like, what can I do? As a writer, I can only do one thing. That set me about wanting to investigate why these things happen. And if it wasn’t for the fact they continue to, the film wouldn’t need to exist,” he said.
Shaking Australia to its core, the Port Arthur Massacre resulted in landmark gun reforms being passed in just 12 days and the creation of the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) to control ownership of semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons, with 650,000 guns being bought back by the government. Something that is still yet to happen in the US.
However, Kurzel says a large part of his reason for making the film is there are now more guns in Australia than there were in 1996. The Australia Institute reports there were 3.6 million firearms in 2017, compared with 3.2 million prior to the NFA.
“Some [laws] have been softened [and] there are some that were never put into place. I think we need to keep discussing and having a conversation as to why it’s important,” the director says.
Careful to step gently in that discussion, Nitram’s reflection on the killer’s life and what led to the shootings stops short of the horrifying culmination – although some scenes, including the centrepiece where Nitram casually purchases a number of guns without being challenged, will stay with viewers long after the credits roll. The focus is instead on trying to understand from the perpetrator’s point of view what could lead someone to do the unthinkable.
The protagonist, chillingly portrayed by American Caleb Landry Jones, who won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance, is also never correctly named – hence the title (Martin spelled backwards) – and is never referred to directly by Kurzel or Grant in this interview for The Latch.
“It was discovered in the research that he had this nickname,” explains Grant of the choice to use ‘Nitram’.
“A big aspect of the film is about identity and someone trying to find it. He’ll go from attempting to find it with surfing, to landing in the music world with Helen or travelling. Then sadly for all involved, he finds it in this gun culture.”
Rather than cause upset, Kurzel hopes Nitram – the first Australian film in competition at Cannes in 10 years – speaks to audiences in the same way it spoke to him when he first read Grant’s screenplay.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been so much discussion about a film before it’s even been seen and I completely understand and respect that,” he says.
“I hope it starts a discussion about gun reform and about those people that perhaps we’ve ignored or not spent any time asking questions about… It spoke to me in a really powerful way. I felt it more than any discussion or debate, and that is what art can do. It can speak to you in a visceral, emotional and truthful way that perhaps other forms can’t.”
Nitram is now streaming on Stan.
Leigh Livingstone is a freelance entertainment journalist and film critic who co-hosts Popcorn Podcast with Leigh and Tim on all major podcast platforms.