Producers: Nick Batzias, Virginia Whitwell, Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant   Director: Justin Kurzel    Screenplay: Shaun Grant   Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Keenan, Rick James and Conrad Brandt   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B+

The world is awash in true-crime documentaries and dramatizations, many of them in very poor taste, this one by Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant (who previously collaborated on “True History of the Kelly Gang,” about the nineteenth-century bushranger/outlaw Ned Kelly, as well as 2011’s true-crime “The Snowtown Murders”), is one of the more subdued, and all the more striking for it.  It portrays the events leading up to the terrible 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania—35 dead and 23 wounded—that prompted the passage of stricter gun control legislation in Australia.  But unlike, for example, Paul Greengrass’s “22 July,” which recreated the Utøya Island massacre that claimed even more victims in Norway in 2011, “Nitram” doesn’t depict the actual violence, stepping back from doing so just as it’s about to occur.  Instead it’s a character study of the perpetrator.

He isn’t even specifically named, referred to by the titular nickname bestowed on him by classmates—the reverse of his given name, designed to show that they considered him backward.  Nitram first appears briefly in newsreel footage as a twelve-year boy injured playing with fireworks (and matter-of-factly saying he’ll continue the dangerous practice), but the narrative quickly jumps ahead to him as a lumbering, childlike man played by Caleb Landry Jones, still living with his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia)—and still setting off fireworks, to the anger of neighbors.  His seen-it-all mother is wearily accustomed to his troublesome behavior and determined to keep him on his prescribed meds; his exhausted father is more tolerant of his son’s peculiarities, obsessively dreaming of purchasing a farm where the family can live a quieter, more normal life.

Nitram’s fortune changes when, ambling about in search of grass-cutting jobs, he encounters Helen (Essie Davis), a reclusive heiress in a remote house where she lives with a menagerie of cats and dogs.  The mild-mannered, flighty woman for some takes an interest in him and showers him with gifts; and despite his mother’s skepticism about her motives, Nitram moves in with her.  Helen caters to him, objecting only when he begins practicing with an air rifle, and even giving him a care despite the fact that, unknown to her, he has no driver’s license.  Nitram tries to bring Helen and his mother together for lunch (ironically, at the site where he will later commit his infamous act), but the tension between the two women remains strong. 

Then tragedy strikes.  Helen dies in a car crash in which, at least as depicted here, Nitram’s habit of grabbing the steering wheel for fun is responsible.  As her heir, he is now rich, and begins to show ever clearer signs of mental deterioration.  He’s furious when the couple who bought the property his father had planned to purchase—a disappointment from which his dad had never recovered—refuse to sell it to him, and begins to acquire guns, which dealers are willing to provide without his having bothered to get the necessary registration forms.  It’s suggested that a mass shooting at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, might have encouraged him to act. The horrendous events that follow are either heard happening offscreen, or referred to matter-of-factly in closing captions.

This portrait of a mentally disturbed man on the verge of a violent explosion is probing and dramatically intense, but neither exploitative nor sensationalist.  Jones gives a controlled, incisive performance in the title role, shifting subtly between sullen indolence and manic energy.  And while he’s been singled out for altering his appearance in the part, the same notice should be given to LaPaglia, who is almost unrecognizable—and equally brilliant—as Nitram’s father.  The two women are no less impressive.  Judy Davis brings a resigned but brittle nervousness to Nitram’s mother, while Essie Davis is dreamily mousy as Helen.  None of the four can be easily read, and the film doesn’t try to offer easy explanations about their motives or intentions.  Instead Grant, Kurzel and the actors present all of them as enigmatic figures—the right decision, given the ultimately inexplicable nature of the horror in which they were entangled. 

The authentically ragged look of the film—with its period production and costume design by Alice Babidge, unfussy hand-held cinematography by Germain McMicking and unhurried editing by Nick Fenton—adds to the near-documentary feel, while Jed Kurzel’s sensitive score adds to the tension without becoming overbearing.

“Nitram” ends with an added punch.  A caption noting a passage of Australia’s groundbreaking gun-control law in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre is immediately followed by another noting that it is not strictly observed, and that there are more firearms in the country now than there were in 1996.  Left unsaid is that despite an epidemic of gun violence, the United States hasn’t even attempted to curb it in any meaningful way, or seriously address the connection between it and mental health.  A film can’t solve such an enormous problem, but perhaps this one can at least help spur renewed discussion of it in both Australia and America.