Few of this year’s releases have had real movie-movie richness, but True History of the Kelly Gang is one. Director Justin Kurzel, who made the spellbinding 2015 Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Paddy Considine, takes on the Australian criminal and folk hero Ned Kelly (played by George MacKay), applying similar audacity. It’s the only film seen on streaming (the reviewing method required during COVID) that I wish I could have seen on the big screen.
Kurzel’s opening epigraph — “Nothing you’re about to see is true” — warns that he is going to plunge us into poetic folklore. This will be an Australian national legend that fully embraces the penal colony’s outlawry and the tradition of undomesticated class rivalry among the Irish and British settlers, transported convicts or authorities, that is at the heart of the country’s identity.
Ned Kelly grows up under the burden of this heritage — now called “cringe culture” — which alienates him while also making his life feel predetermined. The son of a morally weak, criminal father and an amoral, remorseless mother who are pioneers in the outback, Ned rebels, seeking revenge as something of a birthright. It takes a surreal and poetic style to convey this wild concept, and Kurzel displays the necessary scope.
Kelly pens his own legend (“I know what it is to be raised on lies and silences”), and Kurzel envisions 1867 Australia as primeval — a Wild West of pre-civilized history and people who live on desperate instincts. “Ma always said I was like the fastest race horse; it was blood and breeding that mattered most.” That’s when Kurzel cuts to an extraordinary starry sky, then pans down to a cloud- and mist-covered landscape. It’s hypnotic. He out-Malicks Terrence Malick and without all the ponderous navel-gazing.
True History of the Kelly Gang focuses its culture-wide vision into an unhidden life, divided into three sections: BOY is where young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) resembles a pale, blond changeling who could become anything. His hunting skills emasculate his father; he witnesses his mother (Essie Davis) indulging a randy constable (Charlie Hunnam); then she trades Ned off to fugitive bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who mentors him, teaching the bawdy songs and violent habits of their vicious world. MAN is where MacKay takes up Ned’s young adulthood in the underworld of bare-knuckle fighting, where he first confronts colonial rulers (Nicholas Hoult) and develops a taste for crime and a natural writing talent. MONITOR is where Ned returns to his outback roots, enlisting siblings and his road buddy (Sean Keenan) into an army of boys who define their own principles and ambiguous sexuality, identifying with the ironclad U.S. Civil War battleship Monitor as if they were rebels against authority.
These sections contain startling revelations about tribal culture, native ribaldry, and a social outcast’s mad nerve. Each scene anatomizes the bravado it takes to survive outside the law: scared young Ned reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” while guiltily imaging the constable stalking him with castrating sheep shears; or boxing before gloating aristocrats who call him “a dancing f***ing monkey”; or seeing a whore’s baby in a drawer and recalling his infant self; or discovering how to express unexpected on-the-road companionship. (“Maybe we are not such fools as we look, though we are well content as long as we may be two fools together.”)
Kurzel moves through the stages of Kelly’s life so imaginatively (aided by MacKay’s fraught, sinewy performance) that he heralds social outlawry of the next century. The image of a dead man (Australia’s other legendary bad man, Dan Morgan) with his scrotum in his mouth, lying beneath a pair of tied-together boots hanging overhead, hurtles one’s memory through the shocking poetry of Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Bukowski, and all the way to Don Lee. There’s urban-ghetto reality in Kurzel’s surrealism. True History of the Kelly Gang evokes a rough and poetic heritage — like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, like hip-hop ought to be. It’s gangsta!
For a thinking viewer, Kurzel’s reimagining of Australian folklore (“They’re trying to breed us out, they’re out for themselves not for you”) evokes contemporary issues surrounding the “prison industrial complex” that are perverted into “racial justice” bromides and further class division. In a saner climate, critics would appreciate Kurzel’s getting to the roots that link private Oedipal plaint to national crisis — especially in the awesome, stroboscopic finale of Kelly’s self-destructive stand against the English army. This is what prophetic hip-hop or a great, radical Hollywood action film would offer. And Kurzel’s signature shot — surveying the land and then tilting up, moving forward toward the sky — confirms that his vision is more than historical and larger than sociopolitical.
In the final scene, Kelly’s eulogist asks, “What’s wrong with the Australians? We don’t have a Jefferson or a Disraeli!” That’s Kurzel’s way of digging beneath official history, which is the impulse that Ned Kelly’s story has always inspired. Mick Jagger played Kelly in a 1970 film (famous for Kelly’s last words, “Such is life”), and the stark, graffiti end-credits here pay knowing homage to the Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet album. This pop-art method suggests Alex Cox crossed with Pier Paolo Pasolini. Kurzel has made a post-punk, post-hip-hop, post-neo-realist post-Western. If True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t winning prizes this season, it’s because mainstream critics can’t deal with challenges to progressive orthodoxy that this one-of-a-kind movie dares.