Dark story: Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant retracing the route to Port Arthur in ‘Nitram’ | Film news
When it was announced at the end of last year that Snow town director Justin Kurzel and regular writer Shaun Grant were working on a film about the Port Arthur massacre, a maelstrom has erupted. Some distressed survivors have questioned whether the terrible events of that day should ever be filmed. Others, including Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan, have argued that we must look at evil.
Powerful but deliberately restricted, Nitrame does not describe the horror that took place there in 1996. Nor does it name the author of this appalling crime which left 35 dead, almost as many physically injured and countless others with psychological injuries. Instead, her scariest scene involves Antiviral star Caleb Landry Jones, in the lead role, walking into a gun shop bristling with a factual deal with the shopkeeper.
“What was so amazing about Shaun’s script is that it all led to this scene,” Kurzel recalls when he first read it. “There was absolute horror in the ridiculous, pathetic absurdity of someone who shouldn’t walk into this store pulling out a bag of cash and picking up a whole bunch of military grade guns like s’ they were fishing rods. Surprisingly violent guns, and he’s able to buy it all in the most casual way, without a gun license.
The knot of Nitrame, the scene was shot in the Victoria area two days after the project was publicly announced and outrage aroused. Even the prime minister has given his opinion to parliament. “When that scene ended, Juz and I looked at each other from the monitor,” Grant says. “We left the set that day knowing we were doing the right thing.”
Grant wrote the film while living in Los Angeles, disturbed by the appalling regularity of horrific gun violence, which brought him back to Port Arthur.
Looking into the dark heart of Australian masculinity is not new territory for this duo. They won the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival for their portrayal of the preparations for the Snowtown murders and critical applause for their adaptation of the Peter Carey novel. The True Story of the Kelly Gang. They were shocked that funders including Screen Australia and Film Victoria walked away.
“What was disappointing was that we felt like we weren’t trusted with the material,” Kurzel says, pointing to their track record. “This is our third film that Shaun and I have made that explores some really difficult subjects. But we also appreciate the fact that this is probably the most sensitive material you could make a film on in Australia.
That fact hasn’t deterred some of our top actors from signing up. Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia play concerned parents, and The Babadook Star Essie Davis, Kurzel’s mate, is the eccentric hermit who tragically puts this troubled young man on the line. Jones is an interesting and ultimately impressive casting choice. Particularly because, as a Texan who had to go through metal detectors at school, he is intimately aware of the horrific crimes committed by guns.
Kurzel says he and Grant were instantly convinced when they sat down with him in LA. “He walked in, ordered hard-boiled eggs and the way he was cracking and eating them was so strange. He started to talk about the script in such a sophisticated way, and it was just a riddle.
There can be no mistake about Jones’ performance in Nitrame like any glorification. A little like Snow town, it starts to bother and gets more and more horrible. The film’s soundscape heightens the tenor of looming horror, from the incessant hum of suburban lawn mowers and radio clutter to the cacophony of Australian wildlife. About the latter, Kurzel says, “It’s like something out of a horror movie when you hear a cockatoo beating a currawong.”
His brother Jed, formerly of rock duo The Mess Hall, draws on this animal fury in his disturbing score. “Jed thinks that’s why Australian rock music is loud and screaming. It’s because of the birds. You have to constantly compete with this shrill cry.
The music draws the character of Jones into the crumbling Gray Gardens-like mansion owned by the equally disheveled Helen of Davis. Gilbert and Sullivan echo strangely from a leaping record player. “It’s kind of a Pied Piper moment,” said Kurzel. “He’s curious because he’s never heard music like this, because all he hears is Wheel of Fortune and lawn mowers. And he walks into this house that looks dead, and all of a sudden there’s life; art and culture and writing and music. And then when he’s suddenly alone and isolated in that place and things change, that music becomes the soundtrack of a nightmare about to happen.
Grant points out that this is a narrative drama drawn from real events and that even documentaries have artistic license. “I was very conscious of only using what was essential for the story. If it wasn’t, I would delete it. To me it’s, “What are you trying to say?” And what is the truth for this? This is what I am attached to.
They hope they will be judged on this is in the movie, rather than what was supposed to be, while recognizing that not everyone will want to watch it. “We’re still extremely nervous,” says Kurzel. “We have been from the start. It was written from a place of sensitivity. Even though I was a little terrified because I live here [in Tasmania] and I am very aware of the impact that the events had, for me it was amazing work that seemed to mean something important to me.
If anyone doubts his intentions, his worries will hopefully be assuaged by a striking fact that Grant’s script reveals that ties him to the current situation. This is something that deeply troubles Kurzel.
“I didn’t realize it until Shaun wrote the screenplay, but gun reforms are being relaxed right now, and some of them have never been implemented. In practice, there are more weapons here now than there were in 1996. So this is a discussion that we really need to keep talking about.
Nitrame is in theaters now.
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