Tag Archives: Justin Kurtzel

It Takes a Village


by Hope Madden

About a decade ago, director Justin Kurzel made one amazing true crime film. Working from a script by Shaun Grant, Kurzel took a notorious crime spree and created the most realistic and unnerving film of 2011 in Snowtown.

The pair reteamed for 2019’s underseen treasure based on true Australian events, True History of the Kelly Gang. They are back, once again digging into the seedier side of Aussie history with another true crime in Nitram.

In 1996, Martin Bryant murdered 35 people, injuring another 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The horror led to immediate gun reform in the nation, but Kurtzel and Grant are more interested in what came before than after.

Playing the unnamed central figure (Nitram is Martin spelled backward), Caleb Landry Jones has never been better, and that’s saying something. He is one of the most versatile actors working today, effortlessly moving from comedy to drama, from terrifying to charming to awkward to ethereal. There is an aching tenderness central to every performance. (OK, maybe not Get Out, but that would have been weird.)

Kurzel surrounds him with veteran talent at the top of their games. Essie Davis matches Landry Jones’s with a fragile, winsome turn as the older misfit who becomes his friend. Anthony LaPaglia creates a believable, gentle presence as Martin’s father, while the formidable Judy Davis nails every nuance as his complicated, hard mother.

She’s mesmerizing and award-worthy.

Looking at the making of the monster is no new concept in film, and it’s often a misfire, either romanticizing or relishing in the lurid. Nitram does neither. Grant’s greatest gift as a writer may be his ability to mine difficult terrain without sentiment. (His script for Cate Shortland’s crushing 2017 thriller Berlin Syndrome is his greatest triumph in this area.)

Nitram looks at how nature and nurture are to blame. Socialization plus parenting plus bad wiring is exacerbated by the isolation and loneliness they demand. Everyone is to blame. It’s a conundrum the film nails.

But it’s Landry Jones you’ll remember. He’s terrifying but endlessly sympathetic in a bleak film that’s a tough but rewarding watch.

Mac the Knife


by Hope Madden

From its opening image of a deceased toddler, his grieving parents – Macbeth and his Lady – witnessing the funeral pyre, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth announces itself as a departure. The somber tone, the ominous atmosphere, and the adjustments to Shakespeare’s text already on display prepare you for the filmmaker’s ambitious and mostly successful new vision of the Man Who Would be King.

Drawing two of cinema’s most compelling talents to the challenging lead roles was Kurtzel’s other great achievement. The always excellent Michael Fassbender is at once valiant and fragile, ruthless and pitiful. As Lady Macbeth, Marion Cotillard – thanks in part to the opening sequence, only hinted at in the original text – mines personal grief as a source of her own wrong thinking, giving her character a soulful depth to match her ferocious nature.

Many of Kurtzel’s ideas translate into inspired images, thanks in large part to Adam Arkapaw’s lens. The cinematographer, who worked with Kurtzel on his blistering film debut The Snowtown Murders, here articulates a vision of medieval madness and horror appropriate for the Bard’s tale of bloodlust, ambition, and mania.

Skies awash in red, battlefields smothered in smoke and teeming with carnage, the flame of a candle or a blaze, all feed into the haunting, dreamlike quality Kurtzel emphasizes with a mournful score. The screen becomes a misty nightmare, punctuated by impressive action pieces that the stage would not allow.

Sometimes distracting changes to the text can take you out of that dream, though, as the play’s most iconic lines and scenes are occasionally altered or omitted. The cinematic update also offers a hushed quality, particularly to lines that are now delivered mostly as soliloquies or in voiceover. This muted approach sometimes serves to emphasize the bursts of violence and lunacy, but just as often gives the performances and the madness itself too distant a quality.

Powerhouse lead performances and arresting visuals aside, the streamlined narrative can make it difficult to invest in lesser characters. It also feels as if the film capitalizes on the popularity of medieval action when it could have mined the political intrigue for some modern relevance.

Regardless, Kurtzel’s execution suits the supernatural horror of the material, showcasing two of cinema’s greatest talents as it does.