TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is a movie about crime. It’s a modern, poppy work of historical fiction that approaches the idea of criminals and the nature of crime with a deep sense of modern concern. What are the power dynamics at play when it comes to deciding who is a criminal, who is the law, and who is more equipped to uphold justice? When you occupy a frontier, whose crimes are more worthy of condemnation — the “lawmen” who are also the most willing to exploit those beneath them or the young, poor punks who have no choice but to punch up any which way they can?
These are the questions that TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG asks with an epic 70s-character study narrative and rock ‘n roll, spaghetti western-meets-Ozploitation aesthetic. The result is a bit uneven, with as many rough edges as there are inspired moments. Still, it’s a stimulating, emotionally gripping, and delightfully hyper-stylized period piece that lands somewhere between “Peaky Blinders” and Barry Lyndon.
Based on the 2000 novel by Peter Carrey, TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is primarily the fictionalized life story of historical outlaw and Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. The film’s extended prologue is a sweeping snapshot of Ned’s formative boyhood years surviving under the care of his fiery Irish mother (Essie Davis), the ghost of his slaughtered father, the tyranny of area authority Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam, doing a deviously charming version of a Klaus Kinski spaghetti western performance) and the brief, violent tutelage of legendary bushranger Harry Power (Russel Crowe, who shows how much he can still bring the heat when given a juicy supporting role at this stage of his career). These are the best teachers the young Ned Kelly will ever get, training him in the arts of war, theft, murder, violence, exploitation, family trauma, and survival — all of which make up the core tenets of the film’s frontier justice world.
While the strength of the cast in the first section of the film sort of sets it apart from the rest of the film, it’s George MacKay as the adult Ned Kelly who carries the rest of it into incredibly satisfying dramatic territory. Most of us will only know MacKay from 1917, in which he gave a no less riveting but entirely different kind of performance. In the film, he imbues Ned Kelly with the same core gentility and sensitivity that he demonstrated in 1917, but builds on it with weaving layers of rage, skinhead-masculinity, teeth-grinding pathos, and astonishing cinematic bravado. He’ll be one to look out for in the coming years.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give mad props to Nicolas Hoult for playing the shit out of the movie’s central villain, the sadistic Constable Fitzpatrick. Hoult’s turn to villainous roles has proven an inspired career choice. He’s so good at being an absolutely hateful, weaselly piece of shit in this movie that I’ll probably be a little disappointed next time I see him in a non-villain role. Some actors are simply at their best when they’re operating in full-tilt bad guy mode, and with TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, I’d say Hoult has proven himself to be one of those actors.
Equal parts actor and director showcase, TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is stylistic to a point that’s sure to alienate viewers who would prefer a more straightforward period piece, but director Justin Kurzel’s knack for aggressively unique, striking visuals should not be undervalued, especially at a time when we’re all clambering for a change of scenery from our various “quarantine bunkers.” The film feels structurally clumsy at times, but in a way that seems to be an integral part of the package — a visual equivalent to the messy collection of notes and diaries that make up the source novel. Simply put, this movie is a real banger and a rewarding watch, with a strong sense of emotional anarchy and aching spirit of working-class revolt.
TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG will be available in select theaters, on Digital, and on Video on Demand on April 24, 2020.