There has been a debate that has been raged over the last decade over whether or not Australian cinema does in fact suffer from ‘tall poppy syndrome.’ In one corner we have always had people that believe that Australians unfairly criticise Australian films simply because they are in fact Australian. On the other hand, we have a group of people that claim that Australian films are criticised because they are below-standard.
Perhaps the answer to the debate was best played out around the release of new Australian crime drama Nitram. As soon as the film started to gain traction amongst critics overseas suddenly a groundswell of Australians suddenly believed that the film shouldn’t have been made. Apparently, a film about notorious Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant was distasteful to his victims – funny that that argument has never seemed to surface when Australians happily consume true-crime series like Dr. Death and Tiger King without even a whimper.
From my point of view, I have to say that Nitram is a true masterpiece. I thought that director Justin Kurzel had made something special with Snowtown, but that barely pales into significance when compared to what he has created with Nitram.
Despite what many predicted this is not a film that glorifies the sins of Bryant. Nor does it makes apologies for what he did. Instead, it shows what kind of life he lived in the lead up to the massacre and reveals several things about his personality and mental health that many of the so-called news outlets of the day simply failed to mention in their stories at the time.
Kurzel reveals Bryant… or Niram (Caleb Landry Jones – X-Men: First Class), the name he was bullied with at school, as a misunderstood loner who found it impossible to make friends no matter what he tried. His mother (Judy Davis – The Dressmaker) seemed reluctant to have his mental health treated properly while his father (Anthony LaPaglia – Lantana) wants to incorporate his son in his life while trying to overlook his ‘weird’ behavior.
The film shows Bryant falling out with his mother and beginning a relationship with the much older Helen (Essie Davis – The Babadook) who provides him with the friendship that he is always wanted and the money that means he can live the life that he has always wanted while causing more friction between his family. The result is a catastrophic cocktail that is just waiting to explode.
We had already seen with Kurzel’s past films, especially Snowtown, that he has a special knack for making realistic and natural films and that trend continues with Nitram. At times the dialogue and the film itself is so realistic that you almost have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that this is not a documentary. That Kurzel style of filmmaking brings a power to the screen that most filmmakers could only ever dream of generating.
That power also washes over the performances of Kurzels leads. Caleb Landry Jones is amazing as Nitram. I don’t just mean amazing as a standout performance I mean amazing in the sense that if Jones doesn’t win an Oscar for this film that a serious injustice has been done with the cinematic world. Jones performance here is a once in a lifetime performance and he has made this film the kind of film that means it will still be talked about in 50 if not 100 years time.
The fact that Kurzel has the skill of making this film without glorifying what Bryant did is a testament to just how good he is as a filmmaker. The film shows that Kurzel is one of the best directors that this country has ever produced and I get the distinct feeling that he is someone that alarmingly still has his best films ahead of him. Who knows he may eventually become the greatest filmmaker Australia has ever produced.
When going into Nitram remember this is a character piece, an emotionally driven film that provides answers to one of the darkest days of Australian history. Nitram does not deserve to be a divisive film it deserves to be celebrated for the stunning piece of art that it is.