In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a reporter famously tears up the truth and says “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel, is of a similar attitude. Ned Kelly (George MacKay), like many outlaws before and after him, captured the hearts and minds of the public as a gunslinging gadfly—a thorn in the boot on all their heads. Whether Kelly was more of a lunatic than a folk hero is an important distinction for historians. For filmmakers and filmgoers, it shouldn’t mean a thing.
For this particular take on Ned Kelly, Kurzel brings his grunge sensibilities with him, but they’re not so overbearing and wrist-cutty this go-around. There are actual moments of joy, for Kelly is portrayed as an impulsive man-child who was dealt a bad hand and, in lieu of folding or bluffing, threw them in the air and robbed the table. His father was an abusive cross-dresser—a theme that will continue, oddly—and his mother provided by selling sexual favors to passing soldiers. Business isn’t exactly booming for mama Kelly, so she sells Ned off to a greasy bounty hunter—Russell Crowe in funny mode—who becomes Ned’s Falstaff, cementing his distrust of authority and educating him on the equalizing influence of a loaded gun.
“His father was an abusive cross-dresser—a theme that will continue, oddly…”
As you follow Ned into adulthood and bear witness to his many exploits—bare-knuckle brawling, throwing together a gang of brutes who wear pretty dresses, walking into a gunfight with a homemade suit of bulletproof armor, and more—you figure out quickly that the movie’s biggest strength is its desire to disgust and disorient. Most of the characters are some flavor of despicable, struggling to carve a path through a mountain with their fingernails. As horrible as it may sound to say, it’s fun to watch them squirm. It’s like watching a squirrel try to cross a highway.
Regardless of their moral status, everyone is good company—not the sort that you’d actually like to be in the presence of, but the sort that you can’t believe exist and are glad they do. Like the best outlaw protagonists, Kelly is as lamentable as he is exciting. There’s a tragedy beneath the ruckus that’s not so well hidden, and he’s not alone in that. By the way, nobody in the cast looks remotely like a 19th-century frontiersman. Buffalo Springfield is more like it. You expect one of Ned’s gang to pull him aside and, wearing a fringe jacket and bloodshot eyes, ask him what his sign is.
The outlaw doesn’t hold the same fascination in the public eye as it used to, unless there’s a noble cause attached. And Ned Kelly, as presented in True History of the Kelly Gang, is no Robin Hood. There’s nothing explicitly redeeming about him, aside from the basic human impulse to protect one’s own. When everything is all said and done, and Ned’s story is no longer his, you’re left wondering to what degree it ever was. I’d say a great degree.
"…captured the hearts and minds of the public as a gunslinging gadfly—a thorn in the boot on all their heads."