Not even the typical grit and grime of the Western can contain the blood, sweat and edgy attitude that’s dripping off of Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Based on Peter Carey’s similarly revisionist novel of the same name, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant take on the real-life story of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (George MacKay) and inject it with a heavy dose of stylish rebellion — refashioning a folk tale that is seared into the Australian consciousness into something totally new. Kurzel uses Kelly’s life as a playground for his distinctive visual sensibilities, which soared in his fascinating adaptation of Macbeth before getting swept under the rug in the studio-friendly malaise of Assassin’s Creed. The result is a surprisingly experimental and brash film, tinged with roaring punk tracks and striking depictions of the violence that cemented Kelly’s legend. Despite some inventive imagery and an impressive collection of performances, though, it’s hard to say the experiment is entirely a success.
True History of the Kelly Gang can often be frustrating, and much of that frustration boils down to a narrative structure that plays fast and loose with its own plotting in order to reflect the disjointed nature of Kelly’s own internal monologue. Presented largely in flashback via Kelly’s fictionalized journals, Kurzel follows his tortured youth (played in childhood by the fantastic Orlando Schwerdt) under the control of his tough-loving mother (Essie Davis), the corrupt local English sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) and the various criminals that his mother attempts to pawn him off to — most notably the infamous bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Eventually growing into a full-grown outlaw on the run from an even more devious copper (Nicholas Hoult), Kelly is catapulted down the seemingly inevitable path towards violence that puts him in control of the band of outlaws that became known as the Kelly Gang. The film’s pacing is jarring and often unpredictable, playing back Kelly’s memories without the context needed to fully sell you on his transformation from a bitter-but-frightened young boy into a bloodthirsty killer.
That’s not at all a knock on MacKay’s performance; alongside his stellar work in 1917, this breakout year has cemented the actor as a talent to watch. He epitomizes all of Kelly’s twisted, tortured masculinity with a surprising grace — unafraid to bare his teeth in moments of violence, but still more than capable of conveying how much of a scared, confused boy he still is even in his adulthood. The script doesn’t do him many favors, forcing MacKay to veer wildly from a man opposed to bloodshed in one moment to a deliriously murderous criminal the next, often without any real sense of transformation or catharsis. Mackay is more than up to the task, but the irony of his performance being so gripping is that you often find yourself wishing he had a little more to chew on.
Similarly fantastic is the stacked supporting cast, led by a commanding performance from Essie Davis. Having unfortunately not been in all that much of note since her towering performance in 2014’s The Babadook (save for a touching role in the staggering Babyteeth), Davis gets her chance to shine here as Kelly’s domineering and morally ambiguous mother. She has wonderful chemistry with both Schwerdt and MacKay, skillfully bouncing between “tender mother” and “poison-spitting criminal” with very little effort. Crowe, Hunnam, and Hoult all turn in effectively menacing performance as Kelly’s adversaries, with Hoult particularly standing out with several stomach-churning scenes of brutal manipulation — single-handedly setting the stakes for MacKay’s increasingly desperate Kelly. A darkly funny and horrifying scene involving Hoult turning a gun on a screaming baby reveals the film’s jet-black heart, the simple irony being Hoult’s impatient line delivery. The woefully underused Thomasin McKenzie is the only cast member who feels wasted, playing the thankless role of Kelly’s lover and eventual mother to the child that his diaries are addressed to.
You could go on and on about the messy nature of the film’s form or its fascinating performances, but Kurzel ultimately ensures this is a largely visual exercise. In that respect, he accomplishes his goals without a shadow of a doubt; the film looks stunning from start to finish, darkly beautiful in its more conventional moments and absolutely hypnotic in the scenes where Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner push the film to its limits. The climactic shootout of the film — a moment well-known in Australian folklore — is transformed into something of an arthouse horror film, the police shooting at Kelly standing as negative white ghosts in the darkness of the woods. It’s an unforgettable sight that Kurzel immediately amplifies in shifting to Kelly’s perspective, stuffed inside a bulletproof metal suit, as he ventures out to take them on himself. Focusing almost on MacKay’s widened eyes as he challenges death itself, Kurzel gives purpose to his inventive visual ideas and finally gives us a glimpse of the soul of the man we’ve been searching for the entire film.
While not much more than a visual treat that is slightly heightened by great performances, True History of the Kelly Gang is nevertheless a fascinating work of Western revisionism that’s not easy to shake out of your mind. There are snippets of something more interesting going on here — namely a more overtly queer take on the material (Kelly and his gang attack their enemies whilst clad in dresses, something that gets little exploration beyond an expository explanation) — but Kurzel’s style and willingness to push the material into uncharted territory makes this modern folk tale stand out from the crowd. He and Grant may never fully land on a tangible idea about the man himself, but they honor Kelly’s legacy with a film as unfaltering and brash as the legend says he was.