Movie Review: The Formative Years of a Mass Shooter — “Nitram”

Film and the culture it reflects tends towards gross oversimplifications. When a terrible crime happens, we want it explained. We want to know what “triggered” this person, what made them “finally snap.”

The truth is always muddier, more complicated. Sometimes, some disturbed people are repeatedly, almost constantly “triggered.” It’s just the last and worst incident forces us to put it all together, to “see the signs.”

For Nitram, it could be a lawnmower that won’t start, being told that he can’t/shouldn’t set off fireworks at a nearby school during recess or even a suggestion that he cut his unkempt hair that sets him off.

Nitram” is a tense thriller about a mass shooting whose edge-of-your-seat suspense comes from the viewer’s dread and growing alarm at how “off,” angry and unmanageable its subject plainly is. What will set off the title character, played with dead-eyed, hair-trigger intensity by Caleb Landry Jones, next? And how bad will it be?

“Nitram” spelled backwards is “Martin,” the filmmakers’ way of giving themselves a little distance from the worst mass shooting in Australian history, and a bit of fictional latitude in depicting it. The murderer’s name is Martin Bryant.

Director Justin Kurzel (“Assassin’s Creed”) reteams with his “True History of the Kelly Gang” screenwriter Shaun Grant to show us a developmentally-disabled child with dangerous tendencies who grew up as a medicated, almost unmanageable son lacking empathy, impulse control or a rational way of approaching any problem that confronted him.

He’s in his mid 20s when he threatens to run away. Again. His weary mother (Judy Davis) is sanguine about that.

“He’ll be back. No one else can live with that boy but us.”

There’s conflict in the house about regulating the son’s behavior. His mother still makes attempts at reining him in. His dad (Anthony LaPaglia) gives him more leeway just to limit the meltdowns.

The kid’s mania for fireworks began in childhood where we see him interviewed on television with other kids in a burn ward.

“You think you’ll be playing with firecrackers again,” the reporter wants to know? After all, he’s had skin grafts and suffered great pain.

“Yes,” the tween tells her. No “lesson learned.” He’s hooked and he cannot fathom the idea of consequences.

The adult he grows up into gets disability payments from the state and regular healthcare visits to a troubled shrink. Nitram drifts from passion to passion. He was into scuba diving. Now he’s all set to become a surfer. But he can’t earn enough extra to pay for a board, as he can’t even get a driver’s license.

So the social-signals-missing adult with the long, stringy hair and scary intensity sets off, door to door, trying to earn money mowing lawns. The neighbors, many of whom scream at him about the fireworks thing, have to ask the frankly-creepy guy to remove his foot from their doorway to close it on him. His sales pitch is blunt to the point of rude.

Yet the flighty, Gilbert & Sullivan-addicted oddball down the road, Helen (Essie Davis) takes him on. She has a constantly-spinning record player and a house full of dogs, and tells him “You look like a movie star.” His behavior around her seems calm enough, until we see what he does when somebody else is driving, until the target-practice with his air rifle comes to her yard.

And no, his “I just get sad sometimes” isn’t a real explanation.

Kurzel and Grant blend in story points from the real shooting and its prologue with fictional speculation and cinematic simplification. There was a B & B that dad had his heart set on buying so that their son could help them run it, and both parents could be there to “keep an eye” on him and regulate his behavior.

Jones, of “Three Billboards” and “Get Out,” mastered the Aussie accent of this Tasmanian killer, and gives a performance that could make one and all mutter, “Well, we saw that coming.”

Just casting the two-time Oscar-nominee Davis as his mother renders the woman bitter, brittle and resigned to the life sentence giving birth to him gave her.

One fraught scene has the son try to deliver some sort of “tough love” to his father, who turns morose, refusing to get up and get dressed after the lifeline that purchasing Seascape B & B is yanked from him. It’s a brutal moment, and we wonder if this is something the kid’s parents tried on him early on, to no avail.

And there’s the soul-sucking amorality of a “no worries,” just-make-big-sale gun dealer, who lets the lack of a firearm license slide with an “Awright, nooo dramas” as he arms this Tasmanian sociopath to the teeth.

It was always going to be a chilling, emotionally deflating film. Kurzel and Grant double-down on that by not showing the murders and not focusing on the victims. And they finish it off with a coda that doesn’t let the way this slaughter impacted Australian society get sugar-coated, the way it’s often discussed in the US.

There are people among us who are “triggered” without even trying. And if the wrong politicians get a say, there’s no keeping machine guns out of the country or out of their trigger-happy hands.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis.

Credits: Directed by Justin Kurzel, scripted by Shaun Grant. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:51

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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