Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Australia Has No Second Amendment

Film: Nitram
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Whenever there is a mass shooting in the U.S., it is inevitable that someone will bring up Australia and the absence of such events there. It’s because, we are told, that a number of years ago there was a terrible mass shooting, and laws were soon changed to prevent this sort of firearm access. About three dozen people were killed in Port Arthur and another nearly two dozen wounded on April 28, 1996, by Martin Bryant, currently serving 35 life sentences and 1600+ years without possibility of parole. Nitram is that story, after a fashion.

Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) is a intellectually disabled young man living with his patents in Port Arthur, Australia. He seems to have almost no ability to control any of his urges. He lights off fireworks, annoys the neighbors, and causes trouble. He’s also prone to grabbing the steering wheel of cars when someone else is driving. His father (Anthony LaPaglia) struggles to keep the peace in the home between Nitram and his mother (Judy Davis). Nitram has strange demands and is unable to separate the idea of what he wants from it not being necessary. p> Needing to find a way to make his own money so he can buy things like a surfboard, Nitram decides to start mowing lawns for money. Eventually, he winds up at the home of Helen (Essie Davis), and despite the lawn mower not working, she more or less takes Nitram under her wing. It’s unclear if the relationship between them is one of parent/child or of the Harold and Maude variety, but soon enough Nitram moves into her house and she has bought him a car despite him not having a license.

From here, we’re going to get Nitram’s spiraling mental imbalance. Nitram’s habit of lunging for the steering wheel causes a terrible accident that puts him in the hospital and kills Helen. However, Helen has named Nitram as her sole heir, and he’s inherited more than half a million dollars Australian. His father is stymied from opening a bed and breakfast when the building is purchased out from under him. This sends him into a depression, and he eventually kills himself. Nitram now feels entirely alone, and he attempts to assuage his loneliness with purchases and travel. Eventually, he starts purchasing firearms. And, eventually, the inevitable happens.

Nitram is a frustrating movie to watch, and I think that’s intentional. It’s not an easy story to get through, and much of that is the character of Nitram himself—and it seems like this would have been the case with the actual Martin Bryant on whom the character is based. A little bit of even cursory research (read: Wikipedia) on Martin Bryant and his story reveals exactly how much of this movie is based on his real life. This is up to and including the bizarre quirks like lunging for the steering wheel and, presumably, causing the accident that killed the real world Helen Harvey.

So, Nitram himself is a very unpleasant character to be around, and it’s hard to see how he could have been dealt with. His father is very much indulgent of Nitram, and is frequently abused by his son for his trouble. His mother tries a more tough-love approach, and sees herself being frozen out of his life, especially when he has inherited Helen’s money. And so, while Nitram is awful in his own way, he’s also pitiable in many respects, because he clearly wasn’t really made for this world.

Nitram was very controversial in Australia despite the fact that it is surprisingly tasteful in its ultimate depiction of the mass shooting. An American movie would show us the violence, and Nitram only shows us that it will begin without actually showing it. This leads me to believe that the controversy here is less about this being filmed at all and more about Nitram being portrayed as even mildly sympathetic.

The performances are good overall, but this really stands and falls on the work of Caleb Landry Jones primarily and Judy Davis in support. Jones walks a very fine line here—he needs to be at least a little sympathetic for the audience to care about what is happening, but he also needs to be frustrating, chaotic, and terrible. Davis needs to portray herself is equally pitiable but also in large part as the main foil in Nitram’s life. And both of them do this surprisingly effectively. These are big asks of any actor, and not many would be able to handle these ideas with this much skill.

Nitram is a hard film to recommend, but it’s one that I think is worth seeing, especially as half of our political reality says things about mental health while doing everything they can to defund it.

Why to watch Nitram: You’ve heard of this story, but have never heard this story.
Why not to watch: Because we still have to deal with this shit in the U.S.


  1. I thought the way this film chose to handle the mass shooting was masterful. That's really how it should be. Like you said, another might show the violence. I really liked this overall, and Landry Jones was great. It's just so bleak.

    1. I agree. I have to say, since I knew what this story was about, that I was prepared for something a great deal worse.

      I think this was hard to say that I liked--Nitram really is awful to spend time around--but it's a movie that is definitely worth watching.

  2. I have heard about this film as it is something I do want to see. We Americans are probably the stupidest people on Earth. Probably the universe.

    1. I think Americans are the tip of the spear of an obviously, tragically failed species.

  3. I hadn't heard of this and I doubt that I'll watch it but what a cast! It must have been a prestige project in Australia since Anthony La Paglia, and the two Davis's Judy & Essie are three of the biggest stars in their industry. I'm sure it's a worthy film but my guess is that it's ultimately sad and depressing so no thanks.

    1. It's worth seeing, although it is not a pleasant ride. It's hard to recommend, but it's also hard to ignore.

      Also, it's far more frustrating and anger-inducing than depressing, at least for me.