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 ~ The Dressmaker

dressmaker

The Facts:

Synopsis: A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis, Caroline Goodall

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Watching The Dressmaker made me think back to a different time…not just the time when the haute couture fashions on display were commonplace but just a hop and a skip back to the mid 90s. That’s when there was a big influx of films imported from down under, mostly wacky comedies like Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and dramas such as Shine. There’s just some particular Australian sensibility that plays like a genre unto itself, a fearlessness to sketch outsider characters that don’t have to be sympathetic or hyper-broad to engage us.

I’d almost forgotten about The Dressmaker, having posted my thoughts on its preview over a year ago. When its October 2015 release date passed, I all but put it out of my mind…save for a nagging worry in wondering why it didn’t open stateside as planned. Either I had the dates wrong or the pushback was deliberate because there’s certainly nothing wrong with this dark dramedy that scored a record 13 nominations at the Australian Oscars (that’s 1 more than Mad Max: Fury Road received, by the by).

The rural Australian outback is likened to our Old West and that ties in nicely with The Dressmaker’s operatic overtones. While it’s not an outright Western and there’s no horses, spittoons, or cowboy hats on display the film is very much in that vein, delighting in its revenge tale and maximizing the mystery surrounding a woman returning to town with a score to settle.

Arriving without notice in her one horse town in the dead of night, Tilly’s (Kate Winslet, Labor Day) first line, “I’m back you bastards.”, is delivered through an exhale of crisp cigarette smoke. It’s clear something bad happened here and through a series of flashbacks Tilly’s history with the town and its secrets comes to light. But first…there’s work to be done.

Her first stop is to the ramshackle house on the hill where her aged mother lives. Not recognizing her glamorous daughter at first (and continuing to deny knowing her long after she connects the dots), Molly (Judy Davis) gets scrubbed up and her clap trap home receives a good cleaning. The town is full of gossips, busybodies, crooked councilmen, and an array of other tightly wired curiosities…none of which are the least bit happy to see Tilly’s return. The only folk showing some interest is Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2, dreamy to look at but at least a decade too young to play Winslet’s peer) and the cross-dressing town sergeant (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) who gets the first big laugh of the film with an unexpected exclamation.

Though they still prefer to keep her at a distance, Tilly’s transformative way with a needle and thread revitalizes the fickle women of the town who are willing to let bygones be bygones as long as they look good doing it. The past comes back to haunt them all, though, when old scars are opened and fresh wounds revealed, culminating in an unusually satisfying finale that successfully ties off a whole host of loose ends.

With her impressive Australian accent, Winslet fits right in as a woman who sticks out. Her fair white skin is a perfect contrast to the weather beaten sun scorched faces of a past clan she’s left behind but can’t quite escape. Weaving and Caroline Goodall are lively while Sarah Snook (Jessabelle) transforms from an ugly duckling to a glamorous swan with a dark side. The movie truly belongs to Davis, though, in a performance that deserves major award recognition. Nailing each laugh and then some, she’s the one you’ll be watching whenever she’s onscreen.

If there’s fault here, it’s that director Jocelyn Moorhouse (adapting the screenplay from the novel by Rosalie Ham) lets the film go on longer than it has to. Reaching its first climax about 75 minutes in, there’s still 45 more minutes for the wheels to grind and sputter before finding some fire as it leads up to the finale. All in all, it’s a minor problem to have when the rest of the elements are so solid. The Dressmaker hasn’t arrived in the US with much fanfare but here’s hoping that, like it’s heroine, it sneaks up on audiences in most surprising ways.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Dressmaker

dressmaker

Synopsis: A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

Release Date: October 29, 2015

Thoughts: Be warned, while I’ve yet to read Rosalie Ham’s novel on which this is based, this first look at The Dressmaker seems heavy on spoilers…a troubling pattern in previews lately.  If you’d rather wait for the finished product arriving on US shores in late 2015, you’ll be treated to a period drama set in the Australian outback starring Kate Winslet (Labor Day) as a woman returning home with a vengeance.  This seems more dark comedy than dark drama, a perfect fit for Winslet’s considerable talent.  Though I’m a bit leery that Jocelyn Moorhouse is at the helm having recently made it only halfway through her treacly 1995 misfire How to Make an American Quilt, I’m encouraged that the script comes courtesy of her husband, director P.J. Hogan who was responsible for the delightfully droll Muriel’s Wedding (and the less droll My Best Friend’s Wedding).  Still, any occasion for Winslet to appear onscreen is reason to celebrate, and she’s joined by Liam Hemsworth (The Expendables 2), Hugo Weaving (Cloud Atlas), an unrecognizable Judy Davis, and an actress everyone should be taking notice of…Sarah Snook (Jessabelle).