Nitram

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In Nitram, Caleb Landry Jones plays the title character, an adult male who still lives at home with his Mum (Judy Davis) and Dad (Anthony LaPaglia). He's clearly not equipped to live independently. Nitram is alarmingly impulsive and volatile, taking a certain pleasure in annoying other people, like the neighbor who screams at him for playing with fireworks at inappropriate hours. Life changes when he meets Helen (The Babadook's Essie Davis), an eccentric heiress who takes a shine to him. Before long, he's living platonically in her mansion. That doesn't sit well with his folks, who can't comprehend why this woman would want to devote herself to their son.

When Nitram's relationship with Helen meets a tragic end, a spiral starts. Already unable to manage unpleasant emotions, he begins a cycle of poor choices. Then another tragedy strikes before he's made any progress coming to terms with the first one. With a variety of feelings swirling around inside his head, he loses his ability to put anything into perspective. His suffering is seen by those around him, yet not attended to.

Nitram was inspired by a real-life tragedy, namely the 1996 mass shooting at Port Arthur in Australia. Few things are trickier than trying to tackle that kind of sociopathy without becoming exploitative. Director Justin Kurzel (True History of the Kelly Gang) and writer Shaun Grant pull it off. No violence is shown onscreen. Instead, the story focuses on the series of events that push Nitram to a place where he feels that if he's suffering, other people might as well suffer, too. In making the film a psychological study, Kurzel is able to shed light on why such acts have become uncomfortably common, while also crafting a compelling human drama that stands apart from the incident it's based on.

The family dynamics in the movie are gripping. Nitram has a mother who doesn't understand his behavior but seeks to control it. By contrast, his father does understand the behavior but makes excuses or lets Nitram have his way. Drama arises from how those different parenting styles fail to create the structure that might help him find stability. Davis and LaPaglia are outstanding as Mum and Dad, playing opposite sides of the same coin. She feels angry about his issues, he feels sad. Of particular interest is the edge Davis brings to her character. She plays a woman who doesn't grasp that “laying down the law” is only pushing her son away.

Caleb Landry Jones (The Outpost) delivers another remarkable performance here. Through his work, we feel Nitram's pain. The actor gives him a jittery quality, inferring that Nitram alternately likes and is repulsed by his own impulsivity. As the movie goes on, Jones morphs that into a palpable sense of mourning. This guy's inability to manage grief is almost as troubling to him as the grief itself. Jones doesn't ask us to sympathize with the young man he's playing, he merely asks us to be open to an interpretation of how someone gets to a point of choosing violence.

Nitram is, at its core, about how red flags can be missed. Time and again, people around the film's central figure fail to recognize how his dysfunctional mindset is cranking itself up. Since it's established early on that he's largely powerless to control himself, the stage is set for disaster. Why would anyone want to see a movie like this? For starters, there's a lot of insight. Other Nitrams are out there. It isn't too late to spot their red flags. Beyond that, the picture is a compelling drama, with good performances across the board and a relevant message about how we might be able to head off future tragedies.

Nitram is not easy viewing. It is, however, thought-provoking and important.


out of four

Nitram is unrated, but contains adult language and mature subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.