Cannes 2021: Nitram, chilling portrait of a killer

Justin Kurzel continues his exploration of Australia’s violent history and offers Caleb Landry Jones an acting award at Cannes.

After The Kelly Gang, his latest film, evoking the Australian Jesse James Ned Kelly, who was bathed in an imagery of rock’n roll and romantic violence, Justin Kurzel continues to probe the roots of evil in his native country with Nitram, but in a much more clinical and restrained style. It must be said that the subject could not be more serious: the filmmaker is interested here in a massacre that occurred in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1996 – a young man named Martin Bryant had killed 35 people there, and injured 23 others, in a wave of unexplained savagery, which had traumatized Australia to the point that a law allowing better control of the circulation of firearms was passed within two weeks of the massacre. The wounds there are still alive – upon learning that a film on the subject was about to be made, some families of the victims expressed their concern.

Filmmaker of excess and disproportion (see his Macbeth furious with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, his previous participation in the Cannes competition, in 2015), Kurzel here takes great care never to be able to lend flank to the slightest accusation of fascination with violence. Nitram paints the portrait of the future author of the Port Arthur massacre in a distanced, almost “extinct” style, which sometimes evokes the sad languor of theElephant by Gus Van Sant, accumulating the clues that would make it possible to understand the young man’s shift towards murderous madness (mental illness, failing parents, social exclusion …), in a collection of suspended moments where one feels little by little the rise of the anger, until the final explosion. How far away to film Nitram (the first name Martin, spelled backwards, and which suddenly sounds like nitroglycerin) to understand him without excusing him? So that it touches us without it fascinating us? Justin Kurzel does not avoid these questions, on the contrary, he weighs them at every moment, at every shot, as one weighs a detached grenade which threatens to explode in our face. Aided in this by the very precise delivery of the ever-alien Caleb Landry Jones (revealed in Antiviral by Brandon Cronenberg, who has since crossed paths in Twin Peaks: The Return), of all plans or almost, and whose translucent gaze of a big sad child seems to ask us a question doomed to remain unanswered.

The Cannes 2021 Awards

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