The most chilling scene in Justin Kurzel’s “Nitram” — a movie that’s rarely less than freezing — occurs near the end and shows the title character, a disturbed young man, buying multiple firearms and rounds of ammunition. His demeanor is, for the first time, confident and purposeful; his handling of the weapons as natural as if he were born to them. The scene unnerves even if we don’t know where he’s going, because we know where he has been.
Tough and unflinching, “Nitram” is about the evolution of a killer. A lightly fictionalized portrait of events leading up to Australia’s 1996 Port Arthur murders, the film is terrifyingly controlled, tipping neither toward empathy nor judgment. The tone is instead coolly observational, the filmmakers betting everything on Caleb Landry Jones’s adamant yet impenetrable performance as the man known as Nitram — a derisive backward spelling of his real name (never spoken in the film) and a loathed childhood nickname.
Organized to highlight the dark flags heralding the coming storm, Shaun Grant’s simmering screenplay opens in 1979 with archival footage from a hospital burn unit, showing the killer as a young boy cheerfully assuring an interviewer that he will continue to play with fireworks. This fascination endures into adulthood and is supplemented by other disruptive and dangerous behaviors. Neither his worn-out parents (a memorable Judy Davis and a very affecting Anthony LaPaglia) nor his medication seem able to prevent this straggle-haired man-child from acting on instincts only he understands.
A brief period of happiness arrives when he’s befriended — and all but adopted — by Helen (Essie Davis), a reclusive heiress who’s strangely unperturbed by his evident slowness. Yet we worry for her, and we are right to do so, though we have not yet seen him be especially violent. His playfulness seems dangerous enough.
With “Nitram,” Kurzel (whose 2012 feature debut, “The Snowtown Murders,” was also based on a particularly gruesome true crime) has created a bleak and passionless tale wrapped in a caul of inevitability. Rather than analyze his subject, the director steers us to the external factors — an inattentive physician, a shocking lack of effective gun laws — that eased his path to destruction. The killings themselves may remain off-camera, but the movie is still an uncomfortable watch. In Jones’s smoldering performance, we see a man stretched beyond his limits, a rubber band just waiting to snap back.