Nitram (Caleb-Landry Jones) is an intellectually disabled man who lives with his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) and is prone to violent outbursts and disturbed behaviour. When he meets lonely heiress Helen (Essie Davis), he becomes more and more frustrated at home and moves in with her, but soon events in his life deteriorate to a point which leads toward something horrifying and unthinkable...
It's not surprising that 'Nitram' has proven itself controversial in Australia, particularly Tasmania where the movie is set. For one, the central character is based on a mass murderer who openly professed in the aftermath of his crimes that one of the reasons he did it was for attention. Yet, director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant deploy various tactics to deprive him of this. On a practical level, his name is never once mentioned in the movie and you are essentially left to research the particulars of his crime afterwards. Caleb Landry-Jones' performance doesn't take pity on him, nor does it try to make us understand him. Indeed, whenever he's seen, it's normally at a remove from other people. He stands awkwardly detached, as though he watches the world with his face pushed up against an invisible glass.
Director Justin Kurzel has never been afraid of tackling unruly stories, or ones that have violent and shocking outcomes. 'The True History of the Kelly Gang' repositioned the titular characters as anarchist punkers who lived like wild animals, and here in 'Nitram', there's a clash of order and chaos in everything. The house in which his parents live is fastidiously clean and neat, while the house he ends up living is decayed and broken. Despite this, he seems happier there living in his own filth. Much like his name, everything with him is backwards. When he tries to comfort his severely depressed father, he beats him viciously while his mother looks on - completely impassive.
As mentioned, Caleb Landry-Jones and his performance is not really concerned with making us empathise or understand. It's not even making him pitiable, because as the story progresses, we learn that he is given opportunity after opportunity that comes to nothing. He is so removed from reality, so distant from other people, that neither family bonds nor normal friendships could hope to reach him. In the few moments when he's not on screen, Judy Davis and Essie Davis have a tense exchange in which a story of Nitram as a young man is deployed to give us what little insight can be gained into his mind. Namely, that he enjoyed other people's pain.
'Nitram' is bleak and uncompromising in how it approaches tone and story. There is no hiding from any of it, and the manner in which it forces Australia and Tasmania to confront the horrors of its past is relentless. The entire third act of the movie is dedicated to him easily and happily purchasing high-powered rifles and shotguns, exchanging the piles of cash he carried around with him for an arsenal of horrors. If there's an undercurrent in 'Nitram', it's one of exploitation. Everyone seems more than happy to take his money, and in one scene earlier in the movie, he is violently confronted by a car salesman while Essie Davis' character for trying to get in the way of a sale. Indeed, the movie ends with a screen of text explaining that, even in the wake of one of the worst mass-shooting sprees in the world, the gun laws enacted did little to stem the tide of gun ownership. All while this takes place, the perpetrator serves thirty-five life sentences.