When it was announced, late last year, that Snowtown director Justin Kurzel and regular writer Shaun Grant were working on a film about the Port Arthur massacre, a maelstrom erupted. Some distressed survivors questioned whether the terrible events of that day should ever be committed to film. Others, including Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan, argued we must stare down evil.
Powerful yet purposefully restrained, Nitram does not depict the horror that unfolded there in 1996. Nor does it name the perpetrator of that appalling crime that left 35 people dead, almost as many physically injured and countless more with psychological wounds. Instead, its most chilling scene involves Antiviral star Caleb Landry Jones, in the lead role, walking into a shop bristling with guns and conducting a matter of fact transaction with the shopkeeper.
“What was so extraordinary about Shaun’s script was that everything led to that scene,” Kurzel recalls of the moment he first read it. “There was absolute horror in the ridiculous, pathetic absurdity of someone that should not be walking into that shop bringing out a bag of money and picking up a whole bunch of military-grade guns like they’re fishing rods. Astonishingly violent weaponry, and he’s able to buy all of this in the most casual way, without a gun licence.”
The crux of Nitram, the scene was filmed in regional Victoria two days after the project was publicly announced and the outrage ignited. Even the Prime Minister chimed in with an opinion in parliament. “When that scene ended, Juz and I looked across at each other from the monitor,” Grant says. “We walked off the set that day knowing we were doing the right thing.”
Grant wrote the film while living in Los Angeles, disturbed by the appalling regularity of horrifying gun violence, which brought him back to Port Arthur.
Staring into the dark heart of Australian masculinity is not new territory for this duo. They won the audience award at the Adelaide Film Festival for their depiction of the lead up to the Snowtown murders, and critical plaudits for their adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang. They were shocked that funding bodies, including Screen Australia and Film Victoria, walked away.
“What was disappointing is that we felt as though we weren’t being trusted with the material,” Kurzel says, pointing to their track record. “This is our third film that Shaun and I have made that explores really difficult subject matter. But we also appreciate the fact that this is probably the most sensitive material that you could make a film about in Australia.”
That fact did not dissuade some of our finest actors from signing up. Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia play the careworn parents, and The Babadook star Essie Davis, Kurzel’s partner, is the eccentric hermit who tragically takes this disturbed young man into her confidence. Jones is an interesting and ultimately impressive casting choice. Not least because, as a Texan who had to walk through metal detectors at school, he is intimately aware of horrendous gun crime.
Kurzel says he and Grant were instantly convinced when they sat down with him in LA. “He walked in, ordered boiled eggs and the way he was cracking and eating them was so strange. He started talking about the script in such a sophisticated way, and he was just an enigma.”
There can be no mistaking Jones’ performance in Nitram as any sort of glorification. Much like Snowtown, it begins disturbing and gets steadily more horrifying. The film’s soundscape exacerbates the tenor of impending horror, from the unceasing buzz of suburban lawnmowers and radio static to the cacophony of Australian fauna. Of the latter, Kurzel says, “It’s like something out of a horror film when you hear a cockatoo beating up a currawong.”
His brother Jed, formerly of rock duo The Mess Hall, draws on this animalistic fury in his unsettling score. “Jed thinks that it’s why Australian rock music is loud and screaming. It’s because of the birds. You’re constantly having to compete with this screeching.”
Music draws Jones’ character to the crumbling, Grey Gardens-like mansion owned by Davis’ similarly dishevelled Helen. Gilbert and Sullivan echoes eerily from a skipping record player. “It’s a sort of Pied Piper moment,” Kurzel says. “He’s curious because he hasn’t heard any music like this, because all he hears is Wheel of Fortune and lawnmowers. And he walks into this house that looks dead, and suddenly there’s life; art and culture and writing and music. And then, when he’s suddenly alone and isolated in that place and things are shifting, that music becomes the soundtrack of a nightmare about to happen.”
Grant stresses that it is a narrative drama drawn from real events, and that even documentaries take artistic licence. “I was very conscious of using only what was essential for the story. If it wasn’t, I would remove it. To me it’s going, ‘What are you trying to say?’ And what is the truth for that? That’s what I stick to.”
They hope they will be judged on what is in the film, rather than what has been presumed to be, though acknowledge not everyone will want to watch it. “We’re still extremely nervous,” Kurzel says. “We have been from the beginning. It was written from a place of sensitivity. Even though I’ve been sort of terrified of it, because I live down here [in Tasmania] and I’m very aware of the impact that the events have had, to me it was an astonishing work that I felt was saying something important.”
If anyone doubts their intentions, their concerns will hopefully be allayed by a stark fact Grant’s screenplay reveals that ties it to where we’re at now. It’s something that deeply troubles Kurzel.
“I didn’t realise this until Shaun had written the script, but the gun reforms are being softened at the moment, and some of them never actually went into practice. There are more guns here now than there were in ‘96. So it’s a discussion we really need to keep talking about.”
Nitram is in cinemas now.
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