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Australia was rattled to the core in 1996 when a gunman murdered 35 people and wounded 23 others in its island state of Tasmania. Nitram is based on the Port Arthur massacre, and as with other films based on real-life shooting rampages, it has reignited long-time debate around whether big-screen crime dramatisations adequately respect victims and survivors, or rather, amplify the public notoriety perpetrators crave. Director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant, who also based their brutal 2011 feature debut Snowtown on an actual Australian murder spree, sensitively and responsibly tackle the ethical complexities of representation by couching the film as a caution against lax gun laws. They avoid a thriller-type, adrenaline-fuelling recreation of the attack itself to show instead the killer’s life leading up to it, how unfit he was to own firearms, and how easy it was for him to purchase them.

Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor at Cannes last year for his portrayal of the deeply troubled young shooter, addressed only as Nitram. The mocking nickname is a trick of first-name reversal by which the filmmakers avoid voicing the name (and adding to the celebrity) of the real perpetrator, Martin Bryant, who is still alive and concurrently serving 35 life sentences without possibility of parole in a Hobart prison. In a remarkable balancing act, Landry Jones captures the hair-trigger reactivity of Nitram’s frustrated need to belong, while his inner world remains inscrutably shut away behind straggling blond hair, where it cannot unduly manipulate our empathy.

A clip shows the future killer as a child in a hospital burns unit, insisting he will continue to play with fireworks, despite his injuries. Years later, lunging for car steering wheels, he remains an uncontainable hazard, even as gentler moments peek through. Judy Davis is superb as Nitram’s mother, whose icy control clashes against the spineless indulgence of his father (Anthony LaPaglia). It remains ambiguous how much this parental dysfunction has stemmed from the stress of raising such an unmanageable child, and how much has caused it. Nitram has been prescribed antidepressants by a doctor who prefers to discuss his symptoms with his parents rather than him, but there is no clear diagnosis to allow us to easily pigeonhole his unpredictability.

Foregrounding the perpetrator’s point of view, even if coldly observational rather than expressionistic, may in some respects be more problematic than, for instance, the adoption of the perspective of the camp victims in Erik Poppe’s reconstruction of the 2011 Norway attacks, Utøya: July 22, which took great care not to name killer Anders Breivik and depicts him only peripherally. But in eliding the context of the white supremacist’s manifesto and violent radicalisation, in favour of real-time suspense that sought to pay tribute to survivor agency and bravery, Utøya failed to address a need for wider reflection on far-right extremism in Norwegian society. Kurzel had, arguably, an easier job than Poppe, because his subject has no programmatic ideology of domestic terrorism to combat. Nitram fits in with the stock perception of white mass shooters as mentally troubled loners that snapped (like gun enthusiast and murderer David Gray in the 2006 film Out of the Blue by Robert Sarkies, based on New Zealand’s equally nation-rocking 1990 Aramoana massacre.)

Kurzel offers a vision of normality as queasily relative, in keeping with much Australian cinema that plumbs a dark side to mythical colonial utopia (James Vaughan’s Friends and Strangers is a recent, more blackly comic example). Outcast though Nitram is, failing to fit in with the surfers he tries to emulate, he is far from the only oddball in town, and finds brief companionship with Helen (Essie Davis), a one-time actress with theatrical flourishes caught in lost time; a mentally checked-out heiress to a lottery fortune in a rundown mansion full of dogs. Nitram, despite admitting to not having a gun licence, is casually sold a semi-automatic and shotgun by a store dealer with no qualms about skirting the rules on the sly. Guns number more now than at the time of the massacre, an intertitle informs us, despite legislation to tighten laws in the immediate wake of the tragedy, and a buyback scheme that saw 640,000 guns destroyed.

Kurzel’s, then, is a disquieting, combustible Australia: an isolated continent of culturally displaced and disconnected eccentrics, who seem forgotten or left to go mad, where violence lurks just under the surface – and plentiful firearms lie in easy reach.

► Nitram is in UK cinemas from today.