Never has the thrum of distant lawnmowers taken on such inherent menace as their wasp-like buzzing in director Justin Kurzel’s latest Australian nightmare, Nitram. Tracing the disastrous spiral towards the infamous Port Arthur mass killing, it begins, much like his debut Snowtown, with the humdrum normality of suburbia tilted at a disorientating angle.
Australian acting royalty Judy Davis (My Brilliant Career) and Anthony LaPaglia (Lantana) portray the on-edge parents of the man who will soon commit a crime so previously unimaginable that it famously changed the country’s gun laws in 12 days flat. The film does not glorify his murderous act or even depict it. Nor does it name him. What it does, with bone-shuddering brilliance, is reinforce why those reforms were necessary – and why they must be defended from potential watering down in what feels like an increasingly fraught world.
Texan Caleb Landry Jones, then, is an intelligent casting choice and he gives a towering performance. Hailing from a US state wedded to the second amendment, he grasps the shape of the shadow cast by such monsters. He brings a sketchy kind of chaos, hovering at school gates, obsessing on surfers and dangerously grabbing the wheel while his father is driving. We aren’t asked to sympathise with this figure, only to fear his grim potential. Particularly because so few figures around him seem able or willing to recognise his barely restrained mania. His parents are worn thin from it, and they turn away.
It’s in this disturbed space that the lawnmower’s growl brings him to the door of eccentric recluse Helen, played with a similarly unnerving, but less threatening, zeal by The Babadook star Essie Davis. He offers to cut her lawn, they forge unlikely and ultimately tragic alliance in her crumbling abode, roamed by free-ranging hounds and haunted by the discordant warping of Gilbert and Sullivan records. Taking him under her already broken wing, his obsessive nature seems only to worsen.
Caleb Landry Jones is an intelligent casting choice and he gives a towering performance
Debuting at Cannes to a standing ovation, Nitram was less universally well-received on home soil when the project was announced. Understandably, survivors spoke of that agonising day that ended the lives of 35 people and shattered countless more, saying that they felt it was too soon. Perhaps always would be. As is their right.
Kurzel’s film is not an easy watch, if not quite as intimately excruciating as Snowtown. Both were written by regular collaborator Shaun Grant, and he ably picks at the scab of toxic masculinity. It brings no easy answers, but certainly makes no excuses.
And as for the evil we choose not to see and stare down? Few scenes this year will rattle the bones as much as the ease with which he purchases, without a license, military grade weapons from an unblinking attendant. Horrifying.
Streaming on Stan in Australia now. In US theaters Mar 30. In UK cinemas Jul 1.