Lauded at Cannes but lambasted Down Under, Justin Kurzel tells us about his controversial new film Nitram, which documents the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre
In the summer of 2021, Caleb Landry Jones accepted the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his lead role in Justin Kurzel’s fifth film, Nitram. The reviews, on the whole, agreed with the jury, heralding the drama as “exceedingly tense” (The New York Times), “astonishingly nuanced” (IndieWire), “mature” (Variety), “hypnotically disquieting” (The Guardian), “nerve-shredding” (The Hollywood Reporter), and “a real beast of a Palme d’Or contender” (The Telegraph). On the Cannes stage, Landry Jones, trophy in hand, was so overwhelmed by the warm reception, he ran off mid-speech, murmuring, “I’m going to be sick.”
In a different time zone, though, detractors opposed Nitram’s very existence. Written during lockdown by Shaun Grant, the film documents the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, in which Martin Bryant, then 27, killed 35 people and wounded 23 in the Tasmanian town. The Australian public was so shocked by the murders, the country’s gun laws were changed within six days, and Kurzel, a resident of Tasmania, knew that the local response to a Bryant-related drama would be vitriolic. “It was very hard to get funding for the film,” Kurzel admits. “It needed some pretty brave and bold investors to get behind it.”
Such was the controversy over Nitram, Kurzel was three weeks into principal photography when Australia’s then Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “unnerved” by the production. In that same period, the author Justin Wooley tweeted, “As a survivor of the Port Arthur massacre I would like to state that (Nitram) can, and let me be clear, fuck the fuck off… Turning it into a piece of money-making entertainment? You’ll have to excuse me, and I would have thought any right-minded person, for believing that is tasteless.”
“I think films have to be able to inspire conversation,” Kurzel tells me from his home over Zoom. “It’s up to the artist to have responsibility in what they’re doing. We wanted to take you into the footsteps of how someone like this can become extremely isolated and dangerous, and can attain this sort of weaponry. As much as anything, the film is about the challenges of parenting an individual like this, and what happens when the family unit becomes detached.”
Kurzel, a 47-year-old Australian director, first came to prominence with Snowtown, another Shaun Grant-written drama about real-life killings that premiered at Cannes. Since then, Kurzel’s films have depicted violence as palatable for multiplexes (Assassin’s Creed), painterly in its visuals (True History of the Kelly Gang), and literally Shakespearean (Macbeth). But Nitram doesn’t show the actual murders, the handheld cinematography is deliberately unflashy, and Bryant’s name is never mentioned at any point. Instead, Landry Jones depicts a character called Nitram – Martin’s name in reverse.
As Landry Jones (Get Out, Twin Peaks) is a Texas-born American without an Australian accent, Kurzel asked the actor to binge what Bryant would have watched in the 90s: Neighbours, Home and Away, E Street, and Hey Hey It’s Saturday. In fact, an early scene feels as if Nitram has stumbled onto the set of Home and Away. Friendless and still living with his parents (played by Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia), Nitram stares at a sexy male surfer at the beach with envy; when he says hi to a gorgeous woman relaxing on the sand, she immediately ends the conversation and reveals she’s dating the surfer. Nitram’s next move? Save up for a surfboard.
“One of the big tribes in Australia is the surfing tribe,” Kurzel explains. “The idea is that you’re in a gang of surfers, you live close to the beach, and you have long, blonde hair and an amazing physique. When I was growing up, they were the gods and who you wanted to be. There’s an aspect of Nitram wanting something unattainable, and to be accepted into a kind of tribe.”
However, Nitram, whose hair is long but unwashed, is also distant from his family and society in general. When an intimate relationship with an older woman, Helen (Essie Davis), abruptly ends, he spirals into depression and heavy drinking. The character, who’s polite to strangers on the day of the attacks, could conceivably exist outside of Australia, and the UK, I’m sure, is populated with its fair share of Nitrams. The difference is that two-thirds into the film, Nitram enters a gun shop and casually purchases automatic weapons with so much ease it’s almost a comedy sketch.
“We were literally trying to make it feel like Caleb was walking in to buy fishing rods,” Kurzel says. “The ordinariness highlights how absurd and shocking it is. If those regulations were different at the time, if the guns weren’t accessible, if there were license checks – if an individual like that can’t obtain those guns, then they’re not walking out with a bag full of them.”
The topicality of Nitram, a film technically set in 1996, is a piece of onscreen text revealing that Australia now has more guns than it did before the Port Arthur massacre. “The gun reforms have been incredibly successful in Australia,” Kurzel says, “but the gun lobbyists have become stronger and have started to chip away at those reforms.” Grant, notably, lives in LA, and was thinking of his country’s gun culture when writing the script. “We filmed Nitram in October, and the mass shootings in America had passed 430, just in one year. When you talk to Americans about gun reform, there’s a sense of, if not hopelessness, then how overwhelming it is.”
Although Nitram screened widely in Australia, it only played in two theatres in Tasmania, where it was released without any posters or trailers. However, Kurzel learned that a large percentage of those attendees were born after 1996. “I think a lot of young people went because they wanted to understand something that’s very hard to have a discussion about. It’s something that sort of sits there, and no one’s really allowed to talk about it.”
I tell Kurzel that Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to Parasite was, at one point, meant to be based on a real-life event from 2016 that he learned about from CNN; after 18 months of planning, Bong cancelled the film because he didn’t want to cause further pain to the people involved with the incident. Did Kurzel ever consider scrapping Nitram? “Every day,” he says. “There were times I was hoping it wouldn’t get its money. I felt so torn.
“I knew it was going to cause distress no matter how you do it. No matter how sensitive and respectful you try to be, there are going to be those who rightly think a film like this shouldn’t be made. But I believed in the screenplay, and I believed in what we were doing.” He adds, “The film’s highlighting certain things that are going on, and making sure we don’t forget about the enormous tragedy of that event, and making sure it doesn’t happen again here in Australia.”
Nitram will be released exclusively in cinemas on 1 July