Movie Review ~ Nitram

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nitram lives a life of isolation and frustration with his mother and father in suburban Australia in the Mid 1990s. That is until he unexpectedly finds a close friend in a reclusive heiress. However, when that relationship meets a tragic end, he begins a slow descent that leads to disaster.
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Rated: NR
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Here in the U.S., in the pre-pandemic days, it seemed like stories of gun violence were almost writing themselves with the daily reports of mass shootings printed in boldface across our newspapers.  Endless debates about stricter gun safety laws drew lines in the sand among friends and family about what responsible measures were necessary to protect people from one another and why gun owners needed automatic weapons for hunting.  While the violence and events haven’t gone away, it felt like they had subsided slightly during the lockdown because fewer people were out in public and could be targeted as routinely. 

Within these debates, many pointed toward Australia for their radical and swift changes to gun control laws, with politicians and ordinary citizens wondering why those with opposing views couldn’t work together to enact similar rapid change in hopes of eliminating known threats.  Most don’t realize what led to these laws in the first place and how it came to pass that Australia enacted this legislation with support from multiple sides of their government at the time.  I, for one, had no idea about the tragedy that occurred in 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded when a murderer went on a rampage at the popular tourist site.

I can imagine what a movie like Nitram must symbolize for the people of Australia then.  The story of the man behind the gun is sure to raise anger in the survivors of the single-person mass shooting and questions in those wanting the country to continue its healing process.  Director Justin Kurzel, a South Australian native, takes great pains not to glamorize or excuse the perpetrator but instead, I think, aims to understand the situation and, in doing so, find another path toward healing for those still in limbo.  Gathering some of Australia’s top talent, including his wife Essie Davis, Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) has put together a shattering portrayal of the worst kind of wreckage, one you can see coming in slow motion but are powerless to stop.

25-year-old Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones, Contraband) is an intellectually disabled young man living at home with his parents, known around his neighborhood as both a troublemaker and troubled.  His father (Anthony LaPaglia, Annabelle: Creation) is a well-intentioned businessman hoping to find a place in an unforgiving world for his stunted son by purchasing a bed and breakfast they can run as a family.  Not that his mother (Judy Davis, The Dressmaker) holds much faith in either of the men in her family. Mainly content to watch as they try and fail and ready to pick up the pieces when they do, she’s supportive to a degree but judgmental to a fault.  She’d also like her son to get motivated and find his calling, but on terms that she sets.

Her control over him significantly loosens when he meets Helen (Essie Davis, The Babadook), an eccentric heiress living alone in a Grey Gardens-esque lot with only her dogs to keep her company. Initially stopping by to mow her lawn, Nitram becomes her companion, her roommate, and eventually, something more.  Much to his mother’s horror, Helen replaces her as the author of Nitram’s future plans, and it’s after a tragic accident occurs, that Nitram once again falls back into his mother’s grasp.  This time, though, he’s had a taste of what it was like to feel free and newly empowered and funded to do what he pleases, he treads a dark path that leads him to commit a heinous crime that will forever change his country.

The press materials for Nitram ask us specifically to avoid naming the actual perpetrator of the crime and omitting the use of particular words that might be misinterpreted out of context, and I can understand why.  Talking about something so intimate and personal is difficult, let alone making a movie about it.  I think Kurzel and his cast pay a great deal of respect to the families of all involved up through the chilling finale (which, I should add, is not shown, nor is there any such violence depicted in the film).  The mere suggestion of what is to come is enough – and this is from the director of violent films like an update of Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang.  The restraint is critical to keeping the movie within an emotionally intelligent space.

Kurzel has assembled the right cast and crew as well.  The cinematography from Germain McMicking (Mortal Kombat) is a nice balance between gritty realism and a soft-focus dream-like flutter.  Pairing the production design and costume design always leads to a measure of success, and Alice Babidge helps give harmony to everything the eye touches.  Jed Kurzel’s music is appropriately ominous but can be a bit on the nose.  The quartet of leading performances is riveting, starting with Landry-Jones tackling the crucial title role.  It had to have been hard to find a way into the character without giving off too much sympathy, but the balance struck is more than equitable.  LaPaglia is one of the most underrated actors working today, and in his native Australia, he’s found another solid role to tuck under his impressive belt of films. 

An intense scene partner for Landry-Jones, Essie Davis is kooky at the start. As she gradually understands the man she’s invited into her house, her acceptance of his strange ways speaks to her loneliness and desperation for companionship.  More than anything, a lasting impression is left by Judy Davis as perhaps the most complex of all involved.  The mother looks the other way so often, and Davis lets us sit with several long takes of her just drinking in her surroundings and some of the insanity around her.  It’s only after the film is over you recognize she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, yet she’s spoken volumes with the way she carries herself all the same.

The film leaves us with staggering facts about Australia’s gun laws and how things stand today, eye-opening numbers for anyone thinking the country has everything figured out.  Gun violence is an issue that isn’t going away and needs more work and support from multiple angles before we can even begin to address the heart of the matter.  Films like Nitram won’t get the job done, but they can serve as solemn reminders of the kind of individuals that never should be allowed to own a gun.  Until we all accept that it is ok to deny that right to those that can’t be responsible, we all have a target on our backs.

Movie Review ~ True History of the Kelly Gang


The Facts
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Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.  Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century.  Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.

While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling.  Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way.  The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.

The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself.  Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true.  Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it.  What would he leave out?  What would he embellish?

Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s.  After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table.  Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways.  Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself.  As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.

When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past.  This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake.  When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.

Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough.  At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on.  As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust.  Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling.  Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told.  Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.

Where the movie truly excels are the performances.  Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes.  He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time.  That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human.  The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though.  In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children.  This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for.  Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.

Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons.  The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes.  It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?

Movie Review ~ The Babadook

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

Stars: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman,Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear

Director: Jennifer Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’d like to let you in on a little secret the marketing team for The Babadook probably doesn’t want you to know: it’s not an Insidious/Sinister/The Conjuring-like scare fest that derives its shocks and jolts from loud music stings and icky ghouls that peek out from under the bed.

That’s not to say The Babadook doesn’t have a treasure trove worth of frights at the ready for audiences but to truly feel the effect of director Jennifer Kent’s slow burn horror film you need to be patient, listen, and invest yourself in the characters and situations presented to you.

Drawing parallels between unexpressed grief and horror manifested as a boogey-man type specter, Kent’s tale unspools at its own pace, thankfully taking the time to introduce us to the mother and son that are haunted by a malevolent force inside their creaky old manse.  Still grieving the loss of her husband killed the day their son was born, Amelia (Essie Davis) is barely keeping it together between her demanding job as a caregiver and fulfilling her motherly duties to her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman).

Plagued by night terrors, Samuel acts out at school and when he’s removed from class it’s not long before mother and son find themselves cooped up in their house with little to keep them company but television and bedtime stories.  Pulling a new book from the shelf, Amelia reads the tale of The Babadook, a menacing creature with a presence that is seemingly inescapable.  When the book and its titular character start to take on a life of its own, Amelia and Samuel face their fears as the lines between reality and fiction become ever harder to decipher.

There’s some marvelously rewarding sequences here, whether you are a horror aficionado or a scaredy-cat that burrows under the covers when the scares get too overwhelming.  Kent wisely keeps the performances small while showing how many dark corners this house has for evil to lurk.  Bolstered by a creepy performance from Wiseman and a heroically tremendous one from Davis, the film has more intensely dramatic scenes than it does outright terror (fear not you scare hounds, several deviously executed bits will provide you with your goosebump quota for 2014 and 2015),  providing the kind of balance that many similar films struggle to find.

Watching this film at home, I can imagine the experience to be slightly different in a movie theater seeing that you always have the safety of your home to retreat to.  Since The Babadook is all about the fear that you may just be manifesting on our own, conjuring those images while in a space you consider safe may not be the wisest choice either if you have any hope of getting a decent night’s rest.

Worthy of the good buzz and accolades it’s receiving, The Babadook is a smart, skilled film that heralds the arrival of a significant writer-director in Kent.  Seek it out, but beware that you may not be able to get rid of The Babadook once you’ve let it in.