Captivating and nihilistic, Justin Kurzel’s Nitram shows what the life of a psychopathic monster would look like without empathizing or humanizing his actions. Featuring top-notch performances from Caleb Landry Jones and Judy Davis, the film smartly keeps the horrors off-screen and lets your imagination do the work.
Jones stars as the titular Nitram, a disturbed young man who spends his days living with his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) and setting off loud firecrackers in his neighborhood. Nitram attempts to make friends with the local schoolchildren by selling them firecrackers but is caught and reprimanded. He also attempts to begin surfing after seeing an attractive girl with her surfer boyfriend (Sean Keenan).
Nitram begins offering to mow lawns to make money. In the process, he meets a neighbor named Helen (Essie Davis), a former actress and heiress. She takes a liking to Nitram and offers him money to walk her many dogs. Helen’s odd manner appeals to Nitram and they grow close. She buys him a car and he eventually moves into her house after a fight with his parents.
When the family circumstances change, the pressure begins to take its toll on Nitram’s parents. Following an accident, Nitram’s behavior takes a turn into something much more ominous.
Based on the perpetrator of the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia, Nitram doesn’t shy away from how dark this character is. There has been a longstanding argument about nature vs. nurture with perpetrators of mass violence. The film firmly stands on the side of nature. Nitram’s mother tells a story to Helen about a game they used to play when the boy was five. Nitram’s mother believed he disappeared and was worried, but Nitram revealed himself and was hysterically laughing at his mother’s pain.
Though the character is disturbed, his parents are at two different feelings about it. His mother is exasperated and feels there is nothing else that can be done. His father is more passive and tries to assuage him at every turn. Nitram’s behavior takes as much of a toll on his parents as it does on the people it directly affects.
Helen becomes a calming presence in Nitram’s life. She doesn’t appeal to anything particular about Nitram’s lifestyle, but her eccentricities and relaxing demeanor provide a change of pace in Nitram’s personality. Helen’s wealth also gives Nitram the opportunity to live out his life how he would like to.
The film never has a breakthrough moment to show why Nitram would take the measures he does. Gradual steps in those directions lead to an inevitable conclusion. It wasn’t one thing that set him off on his tragic path, but rather a systemic failure on multiple levels.
Jones has always been a specifically singular talent, and his performance here is revelatory. Despite hailing from Texas, his Australian accent flawlessly fits in. Performers are often lauded for their bravery in allowing themselves to be portrayed as ugly. Jones should be applauded for his willingness to be callously evil and disturbed. His portrayal never comes across as forced or laden with tricks. Instead, he inhabits the mindset of a man who just doesn’t care for humanity. A career-defining performance.
Judy Davis stuns just as greatly as Jones. Wearing her experience and exhaustion on her face, the two-time Oscar nominee plays the mother with no illusions about who her son is. Every action he takes is shocking, but she wears it and trudges forward. Despite that, she does express deep warmth towards her son. Regardless of the things he is, she conveys love and affection when she doesn’t have to. Some of the quieter scenes with Davis and Jones are the film’s highlight.
Essie Davis has slightly less to do, but is in no way less captivating. Just as Jones doesn’t reduce his character to tics, Davis doesn’t allow Helen to be defined by her quirks. Despite her odd outward appearance and relative oddness, she is still a compassionate human being who is never taken advantage of. She is in complete control of her own actions. LaPaglia is the doormat of the family, but his hopeful sadness punctuates the drab feelings inside of Nitram’s household.
Despite the dark subject matter, Nitram smartly explores what it takes for a person to turn so evil. The film never excuses his actions and never attempts to explain them. It doesn’t want to understand this person, but rather provide a glimpse on a side of human nature rarely seen in film.
Nitram is availble to stream on AMC+