Film

‘Nitram’: Portraying a Killer

The debate around whether or not it is morally acceptable to create artwork about terrible real-life events is complex and nuanced; there are no easy answers. —Neil Triffett, survivor of the Port Arthur massacre

Nitram. A hated childhood nickname, presumably a play on nitwit, and the reversal of Martin Bryant’s Christian name, no longer snickered at behind hands or thrown as an insult from the mouths of bullies, but now writ high on movie marquees and soon to be engraved on Academy Award statuettes.

Martin “Nitram” Bryant now joins the infamous Murderers Nickname Club alongside Ted “Campus Killer” Bundy, Ivan “Backpack Killer” Milat, Joe “Bluebeard of South Texas” Ball, Albert “Boston Strangler” DeSalvo, Gary “Green River Killer” Ridgway, John “Killer Clown” Gacy, Jeffrey “Milwaukee Cannibal” Dahmer, Felicitas “Ogress of Colonia Roma” Aguillon, Andrei “Red Ripper” Chikatilo, Peter “Yorkshire Ripper” Sutcliffe and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz.

This is all thanks to the film Nitram (2021), directed by Justin Kurzel, with a screenplay written by Shaun Grant. It stars Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia. Briefly released in cinemas in September, by Madman Films, it began streaming in November on Stan.

Before the film, we only knew of the Port Arthur shooter as Martin Bryant. First question: Is this really Bryant’s childhood nickname? Or did the film-makers make it up? I find no mention of it, either in the 400-page transcript of the trial, The Queen v Martin Bryant, or in any personal or police accounts of the crime or media reports from the mid-1990s. I have only seen this nickname mentioned in the film and in reviews of the film.

The film is quite brilliant, but hard going. And even harder going on a second viewing.

The trauma of the Port Arthur massacre is still very painful for survivors and their families, police and hospital staff who were on the scene, and many others in Tasmania. One of my poet friends, who lives there, refuses to see the film on principle.

In an attempt to assuage this discomfort, in classic Aboriginal tradition, the film does not mention the real names of the Bryant family, Port Arthur or the Broad Arrow Cafe, where Bryant’s killing spree began. Bryant is referred to only as Son and his parents as Mother and Father. But where is the sense in that—not using the real names of the main protagonists or even the historic penal colony tourist attraction where the atrocity happened? Everyone knows it’s about Martin Bryant and Port Arthur. All media reviews connect the dots. You’d have to have an IQ as low as Bryant’s (very low: 66) not be able to add two plus two here.

Exactly whom is this masquerade protecting? Many Tasmanians won’t see the film, which is a shame, and no doubt the massive success of the film will mean Bryant will become celebrated in Hobart’s Risdon Prison—fellow inmates may soon be taunting him with his new nickname. Life imitating art.

In the December 2018 Quadrant I published a poem about the Port Arthur tragedy, which was long-listed for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s Poetry Prize and published again, in 2019, in PEN Melbourne.

Broad Arrow Café

Broad Arrow Café was busy that day,
the tables were arranged tightly to heel—
two minutes of terrible shadow play.

A Colt AR-15 Carbine at bay,
Martin Bryant went in and ate a meal.
Broad Arrow Café was busy that day.

That’s not funny, someone heard someone say,
not realising the shots were too real,
two minutes of terrible shadow play.

A reenactment, or Port Arthur play?
Customers trapped, with no place to conceal,
Broad Arrow Café was busy that day.

Twenty-nine rounds fired in the café,
ten people wounded and twelve people killed,
two minutes of terrible shadow play.

Families could not comprehend the affray,
crouched in corners, they covered and kneeled.
Broad Arrow Café was busy that day,
two minutes of terrible shadow play.

Nitram is promoted as an “Australian biographical psychological drama film” but I can’t find anything to indicate that the director or screenwriter have any formal training in psychology. The film certainly isn’t biographical, in the true sense of the word—it’s semi-fictional. Although a compelling drama, with astounding performances, it is inaccurate at depicting the relationships of just about everyone in it.

Even the beginning of the movie is paradoxical. Although Bryant’s character has his name “disguised” so as not to cause discomfort to survivors and their families, the film begins with actual historical footage of the real Martin Bryant (below), from a television news story in 1979, when he was twelve, in a hospital burns unit after injuring himself in a fireworks accident. When asked if he had learned his lesson and would he do it again, Bryant replies, yes.

“Nitram” is said to be Bryant’s boyhood nickname, which he hates, but no one who cares about him ever calls him this.

The story begins with his father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) receiving a loan to buy a new house with plans to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. He wants to run the business with his son, who has Asperger’s syndrome and is unable to find work.

The son (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is portrayed as a dysfunctional and vulnerable innocent, an eleven-year-old, mentally, in a twenty-year-old’s body. He is on medication for his debilitating condition. The doctor thinks it’s time to wean him off the pills but his mother (Judy Davis) insists he should keep getting them, as she needs a letter from the doctor to continue to receive government financial assistance.

To make some extra money, the son knocks on the door of a grand mansion belonging to an eccentric woman named Helen (Essie Davis) and asks permission to mow her lawn. She likes him and tells him he can also walk her collection of fourteen dogs, all with creative names, such as Lyric. Helen is an ex-thespian, plays Gilbert and Sullivan LPs all day and seems simple-minded and charming. Eventually, she buys him a new car. When he asks her, “Are you rich?” she replies, “Yeah. I suppose I am.” He says, “How come?” She tells him, “You’ve heard of Tattslotto? I own it.”

Helen, although fifty-four, thirty-four years older than him, wears braces on her teeth. The two become friends. His mother insists that he cut his unruly long blond hair but he refuses and, in anger, moves out of home, and in with Helen. His mother declares to the father, “He’ll be back—no one can live with that boy but us.” After a while, he takes Helen to meet his mother and father. His father is accepting but his mother is cynical, suspicious and jealous.

The real estate agent tells his father there has been a higher offer for the property he has bid on and it has been sold. This news is devastating to him.

The son and Helen decide to fly to Hollywood for an adventure but before they go, while on a drive in the Tasmanian countryside, the son, recklessly playing around, savagely jerks on the steering wheel, causing the car to flip, killing Helen. When Helen’s will is read, she has bequeathed him her entire estate, worth half a million dollars.

After the loss of the bed-and-breakfast property, the father, now almost catatonic, won’t leave the house or speak. The son pays a determined visit to the elderly couple who outbid his father, aggressively shoving a satchel of his newly inherited money at them, telling them he wants to buy the house. They refuse, threatening to call the police.

His father’s drowned body is found in a dam. His mother won’t let her son attend the funeral when he arrives wearing a funny cowboy hat.

He visits a local gun shop, buying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle (the civilian version of the M-16, used in Vietnam) and some thirty-round magazines. He doesn’t have a gun licence but the seller tells him if he doesn’t register the guns, he doesn’t need one. He pays cash for the weapons. Later he purchases a handgun by mail order.

The Dunblane shooting in Scotland in March 1996, where sixteen schoolchildren have been killed, fascinates him. He identifies with the shooter, Thomas Hamilton, who is referred to as “a misfit, a loner, an oddball, a weirdo”. 

He continues to acquire more weapons privately through newspaper ads.

The loss of his father, and of Helen, has now pushed him over the edge. He loads his weapons into a duffle bag and drives to the property of the couple who outbid his father, killing them both.

He then proceeds to Port Arthur, going into the Broad Arrow Cafe (both never mentioned by name), and orders a fruit cup and a juice, taking his time to enjoy them. He then sets up a home video camera, calmly takes out the AR-15 rifle from the duffle bag, and steps out of view. There is no recreation of the massacre, nor do we hear shots.

His mother is at home having a smoke on the verandah while inside, on television, beyond her hearing, a news report is talking about a mass shooting that has just occurred.

 

DIRECTOR-PRODUCER Justin Kurzel is from South Australia. He made his first feature, Snowtown (2011), based on the life of the killer John Bunting and the Snowtown mass murders in South Australia. The film was acclaimed, but stirred controversy for explicit violence, one critic calling it “a bleak and brutal endurance test”. Snowtown won the 2011 AACTA Award for Best Director.

Shaun Grant is an Australian screenwriter who wrote the screenplays for Snowtown and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), based on the novel by Peter Carey, also directed by Kurzel. Caleb Landry Jones (below as Bryant) is Texas-born and began working as an experimental musician, taking up acting professionally after moving to Los Angeles. He has had supporting roles in many films.

There are fundamental differences between the characters in the film and the actual people they represent. The real Martin Bryant was a beautiful and angelic-looking boy, a bit shy, always smiling, charming, self-effacing and eerily playful in conversation with those in authority. The character in Nitram is disturbed, radiating repressed violence, uncommunicative—more like the kind of person Bryant has become in prison: dangerous, volatile and cumbersome.

This kind of “artistic licence” is typical of the team of Kurzel and Grant. In The True History of the Kelly Gang, on which they also collaborated, Ned Kelly is portrayed as a beardless buffed-up teen with a mullet. Harry Power comes across as an overweight oaf, but in the novel he is well-dressed and well-mannered, almost aristocratic. The stunning language of Peter Carey’s novel is lost in the film adaptation.

Martin Bryant was born in 1967 in Hobart. He was convicted of murdering thirty-five people and injuring twenty-three others in the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996. He is serving thirty-five consecutive life sentences at Risdon Prison. (I’ve always thought the concept of “consecutive life sentences” to be almost Zen.)

His parents were Maurice and Carleen Bryant and he had a younger sister named Lindy, who changed her name after the murders, trying to escape the media attention.

Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey was one of the 2500 heirs to the Tattersall’s gambling fortune. Her grandfather, David Hastie Harvey, had been the general manager to George Adams, the real “owner” of Tatts. The eccentric Harvey met Bryant and they found in each other kindred spirits.

Although in the film Bryant is portrayed as lumpy and pockmarked, in real life he was a good-looking, golden-haired twenty-year-old. Harvey is portrayed as a calm and composed spinster, living in the romantic past of the 1950s, but the real Harvey was a slightly overweight Grey Gardens-type recluse who lived with her seventy-nine-year-old mother, Hilza, so there were actually three people residing in the mansion: Bryant, Harvey and her elderly and infirm mother. This important detail was omitted from the film.

In their book Born or Bred? Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro more accurately describe the Harveys’ way of life:

As the friendship [between Harvey and Bryant] moved from employer-employee to friends and then constant companions, Helen’s mother, Hilza, was left increasingly alone inside what was fast becoming a filthy hell hole. She had been moved downstairs into the kitchen at some stage, and it was here that the old woman was forced to sleep, upright in a chair, writhing and wriggling in a bid to gain relief from an undiagnosed and untreated broken hip for most of the last two years of her life.

In June 1990, after someone made a report to the health authorities, medics arrived to find both Hilza and Helen in need of urgent hospital treatment with infected leg ulcers and living in squalor in the kitchen, surrounded not only by roaming animals, but unwashed dishes and saucepans and bowls with mould so high it was climbing out of the oven.

An ambulance took Harvey and her mother to hospital and eventually Hilza was put in a nursing home, where she died a month later.

The film portrays Martin’s father, Maurice Bryant, as becoming incapacitated after losing the bid on the property he wanted, but in real life he continued to support and guide Martin, acting as a kind of “moral compass” for him. When the RSPCA finally removed all the animals from the unsanitary Harvey house and ordered it fumigated and cleaned, Maurice Bryant took long-service leave to help his son clean it up. Wainwright and Totaro wrote, “It took three months to scrape the filth from the floors, walls and surfaces of almost every room. A dozen skips were filled with rubbish while Helen’s entire wardrobe had to be thrown away.”

Just before his suicide, the older Bryant had set up his affairs so that his son would be looked after, filing a will specifically leaving him $250,000—the entire sum of his superannuation policy.

After Harvey’s death, Bryant received her regular Tattersall’s dividends and he began extensive travelling. He sharpened up his wardrobe and visited Europe six times, Japan, South-East Asia and the US three times. He hoped to meet people and form new friendships but his personality continued to repel people. He said the most enjoyable part of travelling was the plane rides. On those long overseas flights, some between fifteen and twenty-five hours, it seems Bryant enjoyed sitting next to, and conversing with, his captive listeners. They had nowhere to go.

Little is known about Bryant’s younger sister, Lindy, who has steadfastly refused to do interviews, or about their relationship, but it’s likely they had some kind of chemistry together, as siblings usually do. His friendship with Harvey had a maternal aspect, of course—she took care of him, gave him shelter and emotional support and paid his way—but there was also a brother-sister aspect: companions protecting each other against a world that considered them outcasts. He would have first known this with his sister.

Nitram omits the actual massacre, stopping just before Bryant’s rampage. But it is only a matter of time before some other director decides to show us this in detail. This has been the case in every single mass murder in history, from Jack the Ripper to the shootings at Columbine and Utøya. There is a meticulous and forensic description of the carnage in the trial transcript, The Queen v Martin Bryant, freely available online.

There has been opposition from day one in Tasmania towards any kind of artistic representation of the massacre at Port Arthur. Any artwork that looks at anything traumatic, involving personal loss, usually encounters resistance from the public, for fear and anger at the exploitation of their private and personal pain in service of someone else’s financial benefit. But for serious artists, this is never the driving motivation. Think Picasso and Guernica. Historically, the public resistance always gives way over time, and the art prevails.

In 2018, the American film 22 July depicted the 2011 massacre on the island of Utøya in Norway. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival. A far-right domestic terrorist, thirty-two-year-old Anders Breivik, dressed as a police officer, took the ferry across to Utøya island where he shot dead seventy-seven teenagers and wounded another twenty-seven who were part of a Workers Youth League summer camp. A SWAT team was deployed to the island and Breivik was captured. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he was sentenced to only twenty-one years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed in Norway.

Five hundred teenagers survived the attack and a study found that one-third  suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rohan Smith, of News.com, related the testimony of Emma Martinovic, one of the survivors:

She saw him from a distance, up to her neck in water, swimming for her life. Blood was pouring from a bullet wound in her arm. She was swimming away from the tiny island of Utøya on July 22, 2011, as the demented gunman dressed in a police uniform unloaded a semi-automatic rifle on terrified victims.

“I looked down at my left arm. There was blood pouring from it,” she said.

“I tried to shut it out, focus on swimming. Behind us we could still hear shooting, the screams, the laughter of the bastard as he shot, and his shout to us: ‘You won’t get away!’”

The Norwegian justice system has authorised the building of a memorial to the victims, despite opposition from some residents of Utøya island. One local, Terje Lien, said, “We are trying to move on, but every time we look in that direction, we will be haunted by these memories.”

Martinovic commented that she understood the difficulty in trying to create a film about the events. “I understand that it’s hard to make a movie that takes ‘care’ of everything—how it happened, why, and so on, but there are a lot of scenes that I wondered, Why isn’t this mentioned here?”

Breivik has sent letters to film-makers, hoping to sell the film rights to his story for $10 million.

The film Polytechnique (2009) was co-written and directed by Quebecois Denis Villeneuve. It tells the story of the 1989 French École Polytechnique school shootings, also known as the Montreal Massacre, where a lone gunman targeted feminist schoolgirls. Although several of the victims tried to reason with the shooter, explaining that they were, in fact, not feminists, he shot them anyway.

What was incomprehensible to me was how the hundreds of strapping teenage boys in the open cafeteria and hallways cowered and ran in fear away from this lone gunman, who was carrying only a single-shot carbine. One or two fast-moving and aggressive kids could easily have flanked him and taken him to the ground. This cowardice and blind fear allowed the shooter, Marc Lépine, to murder fourteen of their female classmates.

So far, there has been no public objection to the making of this film or an attempt to cancel-culture the memory of this event from Canadian history.

The 15:17 to Paris (2018), produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, was about the prevention of the 2015 attack on a Thalys train travelling between Amsterdam and Paris. Eastwood used three of the survivors, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, all young soldiers, none of whom had acting experience, to play themselves in the lead roles. He even tried to persuade prison authorities to let him cast the imprisoned Moroccan terrorist, Ayoub El Khazzani, as himself, but was refused permission and had to settle for actor Ray Corasani (above).

Although unusual, this kind of thing has been done before. The decorated war hero Audie Murphy played himself in To Hell and Back (1955) based on his autobiography. In United 93 (2006), about the flight hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists as part of the September 11 attacks, Ben Sliney played himself. Sliney was the FAA National Operations Manager who gave the order to land every plane on the day of the attacks. The passengers and crew attempted to regain control of the plane by confronting the hijackers but all forty-four people on board were killed, including the hijackers. 

Although The 15:17 to Paris was panned by critics, it’s often overlooked that these three boys fearlessly confronted the gunman who was wielding an automatic weapon in that narrow train carriage. Fortunately, the weapon jammed and the terrorist was overpowered. But had the weapon fired properly, no doubt at least one of these courageous men would have been killed.

The hatred and long-held grudges held by people who have lost loved ones in these terrorist killings are completely understandable. They have no desire to relive the trauma of their loss and their desire for justice is palpable. But, in those well-known words from the Holocaust, Never again. Those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

One of the most unusual accounts of a mass killing is the true story told in the film Amish Grace of the 2006 West Nickel Mines Amish primary school shooting in Pennsylvania. It is based on the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher.

A group of Amish children are taken hostage by a local non-Amish milkman and murdered. The local townspeople express hatred of the killer, who has committed suicide, but the Amish community responds by forgiving him, and spending time praying with his parents. At the killer’s funeral, most of the mourners are the Amish—most of the local townsfolk refuse to attend.

The Australian director Bruce Beresford told me, “Nitram is easily the best film I’ve seen about one of those awful shootings.” The film won Caleb Landry Jones Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and swept the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema Television Arts Awards with eight honours, including best film and best director.

There have been songs, or “murder ballads” written about most of the members of the infamous serial killer nickname club: five about DeSalvo and Chikalito, fifteen about Gacy, twenty-four about Berkowitz, twenty-eight about Bundy and a staggering fifty-eight songs written about Jeffrey Dahmer. So far, there are only two ballads written about Martin Bryant and one on the Port Arthur Massacre.

According to the will of Helen Harvey, when Bryant dies he is to be buried beside her, in the family tomb, along with her great-grandfather and several other family members. As the Port Arthur massacre happened long after Harvey wrote her will, it is highly unlikely this request will be carried out.

2 comments
  • Elizabeth Beare

    When you change the nature of the characters it all becomes fiction, fiction about might happen or cause something, about what what is in the range of human experience, and not about what actually did happen and its causation. These killings are about deep and dark aspects of human nature and naturally people are interested in exploring that creatively, in film or in novels, as well as in historical recording of the situation as it happened in real time and real life looking for underlying motives and psychologies. The risk in fictionalising a known event is that genuine explanatory aspects are smudged by the interpretive approach and questions that could be asked of a true account don’t have the same resonance, while other sorts of questions arise from the new creation. The young Bryant, for instance, initially seems to have lacked the mean streak the film relies upon.
    How much does that change everything?
    Martin Bryant’s early life interested me in a personal sense, struggling at that time with my own teenage son with Aspberger’s tendencies, one who was attracted to drugs and unable to find his way in life, unemployed, with no finished education in spite of many encouraged attempts, and with resultant angers and hostilities. He too was an angel in appearnce, blonde with huge blue eyes, and personable. We soothed his angers and tried not to vent ours and hoped for the best, which eventuated.
    Could we ever have been faced with such a situation as Martin Bryant produced? Of course not, is my first response. But the book ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, by Lionel Shriver, a womon who now writes regular rather ascerbic columns for the UK Spectator, raised the nature vs nurture debate about a son who is a serial killer. It is an unsettling read.
    The mother is unfeeling. The child is poorly responsive. The father is blind to it all. The stage is set.
    Readers, and watchers, must make what they will of the material that is presented. As in all art.
    And as we dig for explanations from what we know of life too.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    There is also the question of how to avoid these disasters, about early recognition and interventions in education and in sociality; about wise elders and good advice and responsive mental health services.
    Much has changed since Bryant’s day and in some ways that is all to the good.
    Marihuana is now fully recognised as a dangerous drug for some (most?) young minds.
    Cultural focus on parental boundary-setting and the inculcation of responsibility in children has become a more acceptable alternative to the child-centred and laissez-faire approach to nurturing popular in the decades when Bryant was growing up. Various balances have been struck in all of this, and parents also talk more in groups to each other about ‘problem’ children than they once did.

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