Greetings again from the darkness. “What made him do it?” That’s the question we always ask after a mass shooting. Rarely does any answer make much sense. Director Justin Kurzel and his TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG (2019) screenwriter Shaun Grant join forces in collaboration again for a story based on the man responsible for the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania. It was the worst lone gunman mass shooting in Australian history with 35 killed and 23 injured. The filmmakers tread lightly here and never mention the shooter’s name, though the film’s title is a backwards hint. Their film is an attempt to answer that question we always ask.
Opening with archival news footage from 1979 in a burn unit, where a young boy has been injured by fireworks happily proclaims he will continue the fun that fireworks bring. We then flash-forward to a young man (presumably the same) setting off fireworks in his parents’ backyard as the neighbor yells at him to stop. His weathered mother (two-time Oscar nominated Judy Davis) puffs on a cigarette while looking on with a feeling of resignation. The young man is Nitram (though his parents never call him by name) and is played by Caleb Landry Jones, in his most off-kilter and disturbing role yet. His mom is fed up with him, though she attempts to get him on track, while his father (Anthony LaPaglia) is more reserved and forgiving of the boy they have raised – one who not only has no direction in life, but has social and likely mental issues.
Nitram’s long, stringy hair constantly provides cover for eyes that rarely look up. His world transforms one day when he asks a local recluse if he can mow her yard. Helen (played by Essie Davis, who is married to director Kurzel, and was fantastic in THE BABADOOK) takes a liking to him, and the two loners form an unconventional relationship where the wealthy woman buys him gifts, and offers him a home and what may be his first ever friend. Of course, this causes much consternation for his parents, as they carry an undefined concern about their son’s stability.
A dramatic event causes yet another shift in the young man’s life, and it allows the further exploration of how the world can become unbearable for such a person. A separate event results in an unwelcome change for dad, and it’s an event that certainly plays a part in putting Nitram on the deadly path. Nitram as a misfit is also on display through his interactions with a local surfer, and it’s at this point where the film shifts into commentary on gun control laws and the ease with which restrictions can be evaded. It’s a strange tonal shift, but for a mass murder movie that doesn’t show murders, we can at least understand the approach.
The four main actors are consummate professionals and always bring realism and interest to their roles. Here, Caleb Landry Jones delivers a performance that is both terrifying and empathetic. He of course appeared in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), and I’ve been following his career since I first noticed him as one of the bike-riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). While the film attempts to answer the original question, “What made him to it?”, perhaps many tragic scenarios could be avoided if we could sooner answer, “What’s wrong with you?” Depression, mental illness, gun control, and parental frustration are all prominent here. Filmmaker Kurzel ends the film with some startling details and statistics on Australia’s National Firearms Agreement.