by Andrew Wyatt on Apr 24, 2020

Although not as well known in America as Jesse James or Wyatt Earp, 19th-century Australian bushranger Ned Kelly is every inch the equal of such notorious stateside outlaws, at least when it comes to the whopping cultural footprint he’s left in his wake. Described by some as the “National Symbol of Australia,” Kelly has been the subject of numerous novels, poems, songs, artworks, plays, television shows, and films. Indeed, the outlaw’s ghost has been haunting cinema from the medium’s earliest days: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), only portions of which survive, is one of the earliest feature-length films. In the ensuing years, screen actors ranging from Mick Jagger to Heath Ledger to Yahoo Serious (!?) have attempted to fill the boots of the larger-than-life Kelly.

Which raises the question: Why another Ned Kelly film, and why now? Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) and screenwriter Shaun Grant (Berlin Syndrome) answer that query partly with their choice of source material. True History of the Kelly Gang (no “The”) is adapted from Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning 2000 novel of the same name, a work of historical fiction with a dryly mutinous disregard for fact. In Carey’s book, Kelly narrates the story of his brief, hard life in a rough Irish-Australian vernacular, embellishing the saga with people, events, and details that have no basis in history. Kurzel and Grant seize the novelist’s postmodern approach and run with it. They transform Kelly’s endlessly told and retold story into a bleak, bizarre, and brazenly anachronistic acid Western. Title notwithstanding, the film could never be mistaken for a faithful historical dramatization. It’s more of a fever-dream riff on the idea of Ned Kelly, in the spirit of the William S. Burroughs night-terror Naked Lunch (1991) and the Bob Dylan “anti-biopic” I’m Not There (2007).

In general, True History is far more interested in interrogating notions of identity and legacy than in thrilling the viewer with frontier shootouts. Not that the film is light on violence: Like many revisionist Westerns from the past five decades, it’s a gore-spattered exercise in de-romanticized ugliness and cruelty. Granted, Kurzel’s film isn’t so radical as to excise the choicest, bloodiest historical episodes – such as Kelly’s climactic, stranger-than-fiction confrontation with police, for which he donned a suit of bulletproof armor. Still, the filmmakers push most of the robbery, murder, and open rebellion against the British crown to their feature’s final 30 minutes. True History is much more concerned with how Kelly might have become that notoriously ruthless outlaw, filling in the gaps – and occasionally painting over the truth – with splashes of raw, punk-tinged weirdness. Although Kurzel’s film is ultimately a bit short on insight, it’s undeniably drunk on a heady style that’s variously forlorn, frenzied, and just plain surreal.

The film is broadly chronological, with an adult Ned Kelly (1917’s George MacKay, looking startlingly lean and chiseled) narrating his life story, allegedly for the edification of his children. “Let me burn in hell should I speak false,” he swears gravely, an oath that neatly condenses the film’s fiercely poker-faced approach to its snarls of fact and nonsense. True History of the Kelly Gang doesn’t traffic in the winking meta-cleverness of recent based-on-true-events features like I, Tonya (2017) or American Animals (2018). Its deceits are simultaneously bolder and subtler, more akin to the approach Martin Scorsese employed in his latest Bob Dylan documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue (2019). Only rock-history enthusiasts or serious Dylanites are likely to spot the fabulism in that film without the aid of a viewer’s guide. Similarly, it’s unlikely that American audiences who are unfamiliar with all the gritty details of Kelly’s life will be able to discern where, exactly, True History is straight-up bullshitting. Did Kelly and his bandit army really clothe themselves in lacy women’s dresses during their raids to confuse and terrify the British authorities? It feels like so much provocative malarkey, but then again, much weirder things have happened in Aussie history.

Befitting a story that is focused primarily on the formative experiences that steered Kelly into a life of bloodthirsty criminality, True History devotes most of its running time to the man’s contentious relationships with his family, friends, and rivals. As a young boy (Orlando Schwerdt), Ned dwells with mother Ellen (The Babadook’s Essie Davis), father Red (Ben Corbett), and three younger siblings in a one-room shack surrounded by skeletal trees and sucking mud. Red is a shiftless ex-convict with some unusual compulsions, and Ellen must provide sexual favors to local British officer Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) to keep her family fed and protected. Ellen instills in Ned the importance of doing whatever is necessary when it comes to family, a lesson that Ned takes to heart – first by stealing horse meat for the dinner table, and then by stepping up as head of the household when Red takes the blame and later perishes in prison.

Ned’s complicated feelings about his parents – love, anger, and shame toward his mom; hatred, guilt, and still more shame toward his dad – are echoed in the intense yet ambiguous qualities of the relationships that follow. Structurally speaking, True History is effectively a tour of the personalities who pull Ned this way and that, their collective influence gradually nudging him toward his outlaw destiny. After his father’s death, Ellen sends Ned off for a time with one of her new suitors, the grizzled bushwacker Harry Power (Russell Crowe), whom Ned initially admires and then comes to resent. As a young adult, Ned seems to accumulate friends, hangers-on, and nemeses almost by accident. He becomes infatuated with a gentle-hearted prostitute, Mary (Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie), after a single night, pledging to marry her and adopt her infant son. At Mary’s brothel, he has a chance encounter with a colonial policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who initially seems like a potential ally for Ned’s thievery-prone clan but quickly mutates into the family’s fanatical Javert. Following Ned from one tribulation to the next is fellow outlaw Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), whose puppy-dog devotion to the man has a not-so-subtle romantic dimension (a reciprocal one, no less).

Kurzel appears to appreciate that depicting every person in Ned’s life as a reactive supporting player – each contributing a brick or two to the construction of the Great Man – is somewhat reductive. To that end, he takes pains to ensure that the arc of Ned’s life never feels like a foregone conclusion. Rather than a pat procession of encounters, he depicts the story as a storm of upheavals and collisions, each one blurring into the next. MacKay’s performance is essential in this respect: He portrays the outlaw as a crackling bundle of rawboned energy, eager to take out his life’s frustrations on anyone who slights him, while also possessing a streak of childlike callowness. (MacKay’s rosy, clean-shaven cheeks only amplify his adolescent qualities and further underline that history matters little here – the real Kelly famously boasted a full, bushy beard.) His Ned isn’t a man of speeches and principles; he’s a pinball careening through the wilderness on a path dictated primarily by impulses and obstacles. However, the film’s narration provides a hint that Ned will eventually develop an obsession with his legacy, a need to control his blood-drenched story so that readers (and viewers) aren’t misled by colonial propagandists or sensationalist pseudo-historians. Life in the bush, after all, is nasty, brutish, and short, and the stories told about a man are the only fragment of him that lives on after his death.

In many ways, True History of the Kelly Gang plays like a mirror image of Andrew Dominik’s masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which looked in on the American outlaw’s final months, after his legend had already swollen to mythic proportions. True History instead privileges what came before Ned Kelly’s notoriety, ruminating on the ways in which his fate – as a latter-day Robin Hood or murderous monster, depending on who is asked – was shaped by external conflicts, from petty family squabbles to the politics of empire. Kurzel never really provides a definitive answer to its core query – How exactly did the fearful boy become the ironclad insurgent? – although it does present Kelly’s tipping point into howling, anti-colonial bloodthirst as a visceral horror-flick sequence. This remains True History’s most conspicuous weakness throughout. The filmmakers struggle to advance the sort of incisive psychological or sociological propositions that might justify the feature’s wild historical departures and evocative, almost hallucinatory style.

Of course, that style can be a damn mesmerizing thing, regardless of its utility in serving the film’s thematic concerns. As Kurzel demonstrated in his excellent 2015 adaption of the Scottish Play, the director has a talent for crafting expressive and eccentric cinematic visuals, even for familiar genre scenarios. True Story shares Macbeth’s penchant for apocalyptic landscapes and a crazy-quilt production design that borrows freely from different time periods and settings. If anything, Kurzel’s latest feature dials up the weirdness, adding a touch of Terry Gilliam here, a little Julie Taymor there. However, he then gives the whole thing a gritty, gloomy varnish that keeps the film from veering into outright fantasy. (There are also some amusing Brecht-adjacent touches, like the two rusted trailers that stand in for the local prison.)

Anachronistic stylistic choices abound, from the screeching punk track that scores a bare-knuckle boxing match to the Twin Peaks-like strobe effects used in several of the film’s horror-movie moments. Alice Babridge’s costume designs are particularly memorable: Blithely discarding period accuracy for a more freewheeling approach, she clothes the characters in an offbeat mishmash of styles from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. The accumulated effect of all these cockeyed choices is that Ned Kelly’s story resembles nothing so much as an out-of-time legend. Not one engraved in stone, but one that is endlessly mutable, beholden to nothing save the vision of the individual storyteller. True Story of the Kelly Gang won’t be the last cinematic version of the outlaw’s life, but Kurzel’s devil-may-care rendering is a self-aware tribute to the bottomless nature of the legend. As if to say: Ned Kelly’s story already contains all stories.

Rating: B

True History of the Kelly Gang is now available to rent from major online platforms.