"Nitram" director was "terrified" of tackling mass shooting that changed Australian gun laws forever

Justin Kurzel's controversial film starring Caleb Landry Jones looks at how one man traumatized Tasmania

Published March 30, 2022 5:50PM (EDT)

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in "Nitram" (IFC Films)
Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in "Nitram" (IFC Films)

"Nitram" is a chilling film about a mass shooting that took place in 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Director Justin Kurzel ("The Snowtown Murders") generates an absolute sense of dread in almost every scene of his potent, disturbing film. 

The 26-year-old Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones "Heaven Knows What") – who hates his own nickname that every calls him – is restless and relentless, and he is difficult for his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), whom he lives with, to control. He suffers from mental illness, but his actions are disturbing. A scene where his father stops his son from giving out fireworks to schoolchildren prompts Nitram to blare a car horn ceaselessly in defiance. 

However, Nitram's life changes when he meets Helen (Essie Davis, Kurzel's real-life wife), a wealthy eccentric who buys him everything he wants — except guns — and allows him to move in with her. His happiness is short lived, however, as a series of tragic events unfold, leading Nitram to commit a horrendous crime that established massive gun control laws in Australia. 

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Caleb Landry Jones gives an exceptional performance here. (He won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year). He makes Nitram pitiful as he searches for love and acceptance. Jones captures Nitram's difficulty controlling his emotions and impulses. He is childlike, and his "difference" is dangerous.

In a recent interview Kurzel talked with Salon about his film and gun control laws.

The tone of your film creates a sense of unease in every frame. What prompted you to tell this story and tell it in the way you did?

It was the writer, Shaun Grant. I worked with him on two other films. He sent me a spec script out of the blue. I knew in the first few pages what it was about, and I was terrified of it. I live in Tasmania, and I am aware of how sensitive those events were here and in Australia. I started reading the script, and I felt I knew this world, this street, that family, that person you crossed the street to avoid. There was a familiarity in it that helped me unpack and understand the lead up to this event. When Nitram walks into the gun store, that crystallized why I needed to make it and what the film was trying to look at.

The film's violence happens off-screen, with one sequence shot brilliantly from the inside of a car. Can you talk about your decisions to present the crimes in the manner you did?  

I think that's exactly it. I remember reading it and feeling so much more dread and anxiety than I did reading "The Snowtown Murders," which was actually Shaun's first film, which was quite explicit on screen and quite violent. I think it's about what an audience doesn't see and what is suggested is a car crash in slow motion, and that was probably the only way to tell a story like this. It was really important that it was a world that felt recognizable. You could take an audience to this place and time, and they could look at it and see things that were familiar.

The film has caused controversy for potentially reigniting the trauma it depicts. What are your thoughts on that?

I am completely aware of those who wish the film had never been made. I respect and understand that. But as an artist and filmmaker, and someone who read script and believed it was done with enormous sensitivity and that it is asking and wanting a discussion of a really important subject in Australia that happened 25 years ago that questions how and why these events happen, I also knew there was an audience there who were not born when events happened or may not have been in Australia at the time. It is a taboo subject to talk about, but it's been really heartening the conversations and discussions in Australia about what happened and why it happened, and what gun reform is, and what changed and what didn't. We made this film as a point of discussion, and I understand no matter how we portrayed these events, what point of view, and what lens we had on it, there are those who believe, rightly so, that it shouldn't be made.

Where were you when the event happened?

I was in Sydney. It was the event that stopped the nation. I'd just started dating my wife, Essie Davis, who is Tasmanian, and I remember the phone ringing, and her family being so distraught not knowing what was going on, and if family members were down at Port Arthur or not. It was really distressing. It's the most sleepy, quiet, beautiful place, and for something to happen, you never would imagine. Most Australians were in shock, and Tasmanians were unbelievably distraught.

Nitram, the character, is fragile and impulsive. I got the sense that he was looking for belonging and acceptance. This is what he finds with Helen, but also seeks with Jamie (Sean Keenan), a surfer he admires. What are your observations about Nitram and his relationships?

In Australia, there are definite tribes that as a young male you aspire to, whether that's a football or surfing or car tribe. It's a very particular thing here. If you are not part of a gang or group, you can feel isolated or be an outlier rather quickly. That was something I found really interesting — how someone can't get into a pack or accepted in any tribe. That relationship with Helen is interesting because she is kind of the same, she's an outlier, a hermit, and lives in this house, but strangely, the two of them connect through art and music and culture and for a time there is something quite positive in his life. It is about searching for identity constantly in this film. Even the name is a character, he is trying to run away from something he doesn't like being called. 

It's a big part of Australian culture, especially in men — who are you and what are you and what group are you a part of, and if you are not part of something, why not. That was a very large part of the psychology of the film. It's that awful thing, Jamie's playing with him like a mouse, he has the power to bring him into the fold and to completely humiliate him by doing that and rejecting him. That behavior happens a lot.

Nitram's parents are interesting. What are your impressions on how they handled him? Dad used kid gloves, while mom was a bit more no-nonsense. Do you think their actions contributed to the event? He is abusive towards his father in some respects, and indifferent towards his mother. Nitram's mother has a telling speech about Nitram laughing at her pain.

Judy and Anthony's performances question that — hopefully in a nonjudgmental way. Throughout the whole film, Judy is asking: Is this child the way he is because of me, and my DNA, or the way we brought him up? Am I a bad parent, or just unlucky? There is a feeling of fatigue. At 26, he is still living with them, and they are still cleaning up his mess. His father deals with the challenges in a way that almost enables him — to appease and give kid a candy, to get through it. His mother has to bring some sense of discipline. That's the roles they have found themselves in. When we were shooting this film, so much of the conversation was about the challenges and difficulties of parenting and the constant questioning of whether you are doing it right or not. This film is a hyperextension of what can go wrong, but it still fundamentally asks: how do we bring up our children? How present are we? Are we able to shape their fate and destiny and choices that they make?

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The film addresses issues of mental illness. Nitram is given mood stabilizers. Do you think his condition could have been managed by pharmacology? 

I don't think I ever wanted to clearly come out and say this is the mental illness that Nitram had. It was difficult to understand what he was diagnosed with, and I think it's a difficult conversation to have when you put a mental illness on someone who commits an event like this. You are blaming that mental illness. And I don't think that was the case here. There were many reasons why this tragedy happened. But I do believe there was mental illness in him and in his family, and at the time in Tasmania in the 1990s the way of dealing with it was to chuck a whole lot of pills at him. There was very little support for those parents. It was definitely an aspect we felt was important and there was a disconnect there with how to treat some of the things in his life and there was family history of depression. Fortunately, now there is more awareness, but 25 years ago, it was very different. This mother, especially being surrounded by a husband suffering from mental illness as well, it would have been unbelievably challenging for her, absolutely. overwhelming. 

There are some very emotional scenes in the film, specifically one that takes place at a funeral. Can you talk about how you humanized these characters, who are very intense, difficult people?

I think a lot of that came in the writing. It was a family I recognized when I started reading it. The real person was a very visible person around town. A lot of people knew and saw him and were aware of him. It wasn't someone locked away and out of the blue suddenly appeared in horrific event. He was known in the community. I found that interesting. Where he lived was in a well-to-do, ordinary suburban area. He wasn't about a disenfranchised community like in "Snowtown." It was an everyday family, and that interested me; why someone brought up in the beautiful suburbs of Australia by two parents who are together, and trying to do the best they can — how and why does that person start to make those sort of choices and become more dangerous? That's what I think Shaun responded to as well. 

What decisions did you make in casting Caleb Landry Jones, an American, in the title role?

We saw him straight away. I had been a fan of his work and so had Shaun. There was a physicality about him that felt right. We met him in Los Angeles, and he had the most amazing input. We hoped he wanted to do it. The biggest question mark was the accent, because the accent is really hard to do, but he worked so hard to be as authentic as possible. But it really was an instant reaction to the body of work that he had done. He is so immersive as an actor. He never feels satisfied. He's a great old school actor.

The film has an anti-gun agenda, and the scenes of Nitram purchasing weapons are chilling. What are your thoughts on the gun laws in Australia? 

I have to say one of the proudest days I've had being an Australian is the way in which the government and the country's attitude changed forever after that event. Within six days, gun reforms had completely changed. We had a massive buyback. The weapons you see in the film were completely banned. There was an extremely compelling response to what happened. I've gotta say, it changed things. I don't see guns in Australia. When the guns came out on set, it was shocking for cast and crew. Now for Caleb, growing up in Texas, he has a very, very different relationship with guns. I understand and appreciate that in Australia, that the gun reforms have been incredibly strong. Having said that, I was astonished some of the reforms were not implemented, and, at the moment, some of these reforms are being lobbied to be loosened. I had no idea there were more guns in Australian now than in 1996. It was extraordinary what happened and what changed after the horrific event, but I was shocked by what I found out about those reforms since they were made 25 years ago.

How can this film, which is one of several on this topic, create the change we want to see?

I think we have to ask ourselves: How do we care for each other and look after each other? How do we make sure those that are feeling isolated or unwell have care? That's an extremely important thing. I'm talking about Australia here; it's different in America. When I talk to Americans about gun reform it's overwhelming. We shot in November last year and in America they had just passed 480 mass shooting in a year. What is shocking about the film is that people can't keep up with what's going on. They don't know about every new massacre, and every day is terrifying. In Australia, it is different, it's a rare thing now. We have to keep on making sure that it's not considered everyday, and we are strong enough to look after each other and protect ourselves.

"Nitram" is in theaters and available for digital rental and on AMC+ beginning March 30. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Caleb Landry Jones Justin Kurzel Movies Nitram