Published on May 8th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The True History of the Kelly Gang
George MacKay (star of 1917) is back in another period piece, this time venturing into the 19th Century Australian outback to play infamous outlaw Ned Kelly.
I’m quite certain that director Justin Kurzel knew fully what he was doing when he chose to use the original title of his new film’s source material: The True History of the Kelly Gang. Roping part of the film’s meta-thesis into the name itself serves to efficiently set up expectations. Making an effort to specifically emphasize the true-ness of his History communicates to the audience that there is something pointedly suspect about it, yet completely inscrutable.
Like a terrible liar who goes to convoluted lengths to cover up their deceit, Kurzel fully knows that he’s giving away the film’s intentional unreliability. That way, the very speculative aspects of the life of Ned Kelly, an infamous, Australian, grassroots revolutionary, can be absorbed and truly appreciated entirely through bold characterization. Because the audience fully knows that this is a projection, an amalgam of the real Ned Kelly and the way his legend has evolved and been interpreted by history. Kurzel’s amalgam works because of its thoughtful musings on masculinity, national identity, and madness. Yet, it also carves out a prominent identity as a gory exploitation film. Normally, those aspects do not coalesce, but, aside from a few road bumps, Kurzel manages to make them mesh in haunting and riveting ways.
We open on Ned as a young boy, being raised in a shack in the middle of the Australian outback, mid-19th Century. His father is a drunk and possibly a closeted homosexual, and his mother makes ends meet by selling her body to whatever lecherous British constable oversees their little slice of hell. Kurzel devotes the film’s first act entirely to a childhood of being torn in an endless array of directions. Ned wants to provide for his family, so he hunts and kills a boar. Turns out, the boar was someone else’s property and his father is arrested in his place. Ned is then sold into servitude to a charismatic, albeit duplicitous outlaw (played by Russel Crowe) who seeks to mold Ned into his murderous protégé. He stands up for himself and makes his way back home having assumed a kind of solitary manhood. The table-setting Kurzel makes time for in the opening act proves vital in filling the blanks the rest of the film leaves open due to its brisk pace and emphasis on viscera.
We then hard cut to Ned as a young man (George MacKay), making a living off prize fighting in the parlors of local British expats. He has a brutish anger boiling under the surface, yet he chooses not to allow himself to descend into a life of crime. That all changes when he decides to return home and becomes entangled in the lies and manipulations of a new British constable (Nicholas Hoult). In one fell swoop of a scene, a juggernaut of boiled-over tension in which Ned is forced to defend his mother’s life at the expense of the constable, Ned’s life transforms into that of a criminal on the run. Instead of tucking his tail between his legs and bemoaning the weight of his burden, he takes it up like a badge of honor, forming what has been long remembered as The Kelly Gang. Adorned in frilly dresses and smudges of makeup caked onto their faces, they knowingly carve out an identity as rebellious lunatics, making a stand against the oppressive British. They embrace it with reckless abandon. And Ned himself is swallowed whole by that lunacy, rising up as the tragic embodiment of the double-edged sword that is destiny.
As noted earlier, Kurzel shows a deep affection for the kinds of grisly renderings of history that cinema has traditionally laid claim to. His film warrants significant comparison to Quentin Tarantino or even an S. Craig Zahler—perhaps it wears those similarities on its sleeve a little too much. The film has a seductive visual flare that keeps it churning when the legwork of characterizing pre-criminal Ned feels tiresome. Kurzel shoots seemingly innocuous scenes of coming of age with a contemporary verve. Handheld cameras and jump cuts add a worthy sense of anachronism, one that helps along the film’s tongue-in-cheek alternative history. When the action ramps up in the film’s final act, he does his due diligence to the violent momentum the film had earned thus far. The Kelly’s Gang’s last stand (far from a spoiler because, as history tells us, these kinds of uprisings always tout such cliches) is presented as gruesome, suffocating, and border-line psychedelic. Ned’s madness is unfurled to the audience with a disturbing fidelity to his point of view, a technique that proves extraordinarily successful.
It’s relatively short running time may, in fact, be its greatest weakness. The film has a very tempered approach to fleshing out its moments of characterization, its philosophical underpinnings. Yet, that choice comes with a sacrifice; the film lacks the kind of connective tissue that allows the psychotic descent to be fully realized. I was left filling in the blanks in my head instead of really feeling the transformation. The signs of his ultimate demise, the lingering insecurity and hatred under the surface are viscerally felt. Yet, they are scattered throughout the film and seem to take a back seat when the carnage begins to mount. That last act revels in the carnage a little too much, alternating between thematically resonant and loud, bloody, and simple.
Yet, at its core, the film works. If only, perhaps, because of the little asterisk nestled beside the film as indicated by its title. The approach is severe, and sometimes lacks subtly. It contorts to the whims of whatever looks coolest and seems the most dramatic on the surface at any particular moment. But the nature of its re-enactment–its artifice–is inspired by the inability of virtually every storyteller to properly convey the nuances of history. It suggests that big, grisly, abject dramatic gestures are the most impactful so long as they are executed with a self-awareness. The point is that The True History of the Kelly Gang is whatever you want it to be. So why not make it blunt and gruesome? Why not paint in broad strokes?