This article appeared in the March 24, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Nitram (Justin Kurzel, 2022)

There are only so many reasons to make a film about a real-life mass shooting, and only so many credible aesthetic approaches. Even the pillars of the genre risk misinterpretation: nearly 20 years after Elephant unexpectedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes amidst accusations of opportunism (and anti-Americanism), the question of whether its Steadicam evocations of Columbine were bravely expansive or simply vacuous remains wide open.

The nauseating dread suffusing Justin Kurzel’s accomplished drama Nitram—about the perpetrator of a 1996 attack in Port Arthur, Tasmania that left 35 people dead and another 23 injured—is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s film. Like Elephant, Nitram builds steadily and inexorably toward a terrible event we’d prefer not to see. If it’s possible to cite a filmmaker for grandstanding restraint, the finale would qualify Kurzel. The Australian director, whose previous feature, Snowtown, used historical verisimilitude as an alibi for hellacious gore, cuts away before the carnage begins.

It’s a self-conscious attempt to subvert the material’s potential for ghoulish exploitation, and, while admirable on those terms, it begs the question of what’s left in its stead. Hewing closely to certain stranger-than-fiction details about its subject’s isolated and miserable young adulthood—including his inheritance of a small fortune from an eccentric, older female companion—Nitram avoids glamorizing its namesake, while still arguably helping to etch his place in history—the explicit goal of his shooting spree. The excellence of Caleb Landry Jones’s typically extreme lead performance has already been ratified by a Cannes best actor prize. But it’s the great Judy Davis, as Nitram’s long-suffering mother, who gives the movie its few earned moments of ethical and emotional complication—and, as she stares futilely into the eyes of a son she doesn’t recognize yet knows all too well, its little sliver of soul.

Adam Nayman is a critic for The Ringer and a contributing editor to Cinema Scope. He is the author of Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks and The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together for Abrams, and Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck for ECW Press.