Scrappy and burning with an enthusiasm for a new purpose in the pantheon of Ned Kelly stories, True History of the Kelly Gang is a radically falsified but ultimately entertaining spin on Australian legend-making. Justin Kurzel legislates a branded style, his post Macbeth (2015) directing career coming into focus. A hard-nosed outback kind of Western, the story is frayed and cut up into jagged patterns set against a spring-loaded family history of toxic masculinity and abuse. It forgoes the usual formalities and glamor of its subject in favor of anarchic exposition. It moves and stings, like a boxer circling the ring and connecting jabs, an unrelenting and exhausting series of blows that create a vivid, complete portrait in the abstract.
It’s a film of two halves. What’s most fascinating is the first half of the film. A young Ned Kelly (neatly developing child star Orlando Schwerdt) experiences his fair share of tragedies. The film is very interested in the matriarch of the household, Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis, giving everything she has). Young Ned is imbued with her wild, independent spirit, and it goes to great lengths to show the troubled male relationships that lead a man to carve out a life so different from his upbringing. It means something when he’s paired up with a gruff adult mentor — Harry Power (Russel Crowe, a great asset to the movie’s first half), a bushranger turned outlaw that shows Kelly the ways of the outback he is soon to adapt and form into his own way of doing things.
The second half of the story pivots dramatically. Enter adult Ned Kelly (George McKay, always perfectly fading into the work), stretched out as though gaining power from his pose, as rock music blares like it is provoked by the Union Jack flag behind him. George McKay has become transcendent in all of his roles, good in everything, and constantly surprising the more you think about his formal role in any picture. He has faded in so wonderfully before, we do not directly route 1917 (2019)’s grand success to his perfect performance, but the cinematography he lives in. Here, he gets to have so much fun and for once really drives the imagery around him. (As I’ve petitioned before, he would make a fine James Bond.) Fully grown, the story takes on the new concerns of creating a new family, Ned’s Banshees, and the development of Kelly as a Robin Hood-like figure, taking from those in power and redistributing wealth to the oppressed. He is complemented by great backup performances in love interest Mary (an always impressive Thomasin McKenzie) and the deliciously maniacal Constable Fitzpatrick (a ravaging Nicholas Hoult), who holds up a baby a gunpoint and is an all around bad dude.
There’s a great love for the Australian environments in the picture. It uses them as an aesthetic cradle, as the film generates big ideas against the like bigness of its backdrop. Formally, it does not do a lot else of interest as a Western. It may have different goals, as an alternative biopic, suggesting a new truth not based on any preexisting concepts. What does work is the sporadic and constantly spinning wheel of its theme. The film does not relent at any moment and keeps finding interesting material for its subjects to comb through. True History of the Kelly Gang takes a different path toward the same goals as other Kelly pictures. It’s ultimately very rewarding when it gets there and has plenty to offer a movie starved audience right now.