Nitram: Justin Kurzel’s Psychological Drama, Inspired by the 1996 Mass Massacre in Tasmania

Australian Justin Kurzel directed Nitram, a biopic thriller from a screenplay by Shaun Grant, starring American actor Caleb Landry Jones, as the fictionalized loner who goes on a mass shooting rampage.

The superb Australian supporting cast includes Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia.

The duo of writer-director had previously collaborated on  Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang.


American actor Caleb Landry Jones plays a disturbed young man who becomes a mass murderer in Nitram, a movie about the Port Arthur massacre from writer Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel.
Caleb Landry Jones plays a disturbed young man who becomes a mass murderer in Nitram. CREDIT: BEN SAUNDERS

The film revolves around the life and behavior of disturbed youngster called “Nitram” (based on Martin Bryant, “Nitram” is “Martin” backwards), and the events leading to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Australia.

Nitram world premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (the first Australian movie in a decade to be chosen) where Jones won the Best Actor kudo.

Nitram, a disturbed youngster living with his parents in Port Arthur, Australia, enjoys setting off fireworks outdoors that upset the family’s neighbors, and selling firecrackers to local schoolchildren.

His father has been approved for a loan, hoping to buy a bed and breakfast for Nitram to manage. However, Nitram is more interested in surfboarding after seeing an attractive woman with a surfer.

While mowing lawns to make money, he meets a neighbor named Helen, a former actress and wealthy heiress, who offers him money to walk her many dogs. The two quickly become friends, with Helen buying him a car, although Nitram does not have a license.

Increasingly bored and frustrated at home, Nitram moves into Helen’s. At his next birthday, Nitram introduces Helen to his parents; his mother recalls how the young Nitram took sadistic pleasure in her pain, caused by his pretending to be lost.

Despite having the funds, Nitram’s father is denied the purchase of the place due a higher offer. Nitram asks Helen if the two can visit Los Angeles, but on the drive to the airport he lunges for the steering wheel, resulting in a crash that kills Helen. Nitram lies to the police claiming he was asleep at the time of the crash.

Nitram, having inherited Helen’s house and money, begins to drink regularly. He tries to buy the bed and breakfast with Helen’s money but the couple refuse. Days later, his father’s body is found in the river after a suicide. Nitram’s mother refuses to let him attend the funeral, fearing he will embarrass her. The increasingly isolated Nitram takes solo holidays and practices shooting with his air rifle.

Watchung the news, Nitram sees a report about the Dunblane massacre. He becomes obsessed with guns, purchasing an unlicensed Colt AR-15 and shotgun from a local gun shop, and ordering a handgun. He drives to the café where Helen and his parents celebrated his birthday. After ordering food, he sets up a video camera, retrieves his rifle and opens fire.

In the last scene, Nitram’s mother is at home seen smoking, with the news report of the massacre in the background.

It received only a limited theatrical release in Australia by Madman Films on September 30.

The film was met by widespread controversy within Tasmania. Kelly Spaulding, Mayor of the Tasman Council, which includes Port Arthur, condemned the making of the film. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, established by the father of two young girls killed in the Port Arthur shooting, also condemned the film’s production. The Police Association of Tasmania, the union for Tasmania Police, indicated it was worried how members of the union’s mental health would be impacted. The Star Theatre, Launceston and the State Cinema, Hobart were the only cinemas in Tasmania to show the film. However, the State Cinema chose not to advertise the screenings.

The production company invited Arts Minister Elise Archer to meet, but were declined. Screen Tasmania declined to fund the film. Premier of Tasmania Peter Gutwein stated to the House of Assembly that it made him uncomfortable. Other state politicians including Brian Mitchell, federal member for Lyons, and Rebecca White, Leader of the Opposition, expressed concern.

Caleb Landry Jones as “Nitram” (based on Martin Bryant) Judy Davis as Nitram’s mother (based on Carleen Bryant)
Essie Davis as Helen (based on Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey)
Anthony LaPaglia as Nitram’s father (based on Maurice Bryant)
Sean Keenan as Jamie
Rick James as the gun shop owner