The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), Daddies, Westerns, and Colonialism

What a delight it is to see Justin Kurzel back at it again. After the misfire of Assassin’s Creed, this is his chance to make back his goodwill. When you’re a director you tend to get one absolutely apocalyptic mess of a movie before the public really starts to turn on you. What Kurzel benefits from though is Macbeth and Snowtown being two genuinely brilliant, visionary, brooding thrillers that deal with bruised masculinity and trauma in brilliant ways. Before Assassin’s Creed he literally had two genuine masterpieces under his belt, and while The True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t a masterpiece, it is an exhilarating step forward for Kurzel and really represents broken grounds for the director. While on first blush, The True History of the Gang might look like Kurzel going back to his gritty Australian roots to lick his wounds, and to some degree it is, but it is a much more boisterous, aggressive, and ill-disciplined film than anything he’s made previously, (and I mean ill-disciplined in the most complimentary possible terms). 

George MacKay stars as infamous gangster Ned Kelly in this romp that takes us through the Australian equivalent of the Wild West. We start with him as a small child being raised in a shack, and when I say a shack I mean a pile of wood in the middle of a pretty barren-looking field. Essie David plays Mother Kelly with all the venom of a viper, and how good it is to see her back on the big screen after her bruising turn in The Babadook. She puts in another ferocious performance here as a woman trying to make it in a world that she admits holds nothing of worth for her. She sees off many lovers and potential father figures for the young Ned including Russel Crowe in one of his best performances. He gives avuncular, he gives threatening, and he gives a kind of western gunslinger who’s closest analog is maybe Glen Ford in The 3:10 to Yuma. Other stellar performances in an absolutely stacked cast include Nicolas Hoult at his most slimy, Charlie Hunnam at his most convincing, and Thomasin MacKenzie. 

What is key about this cast though is how filled with big, blusterous men it is. The key thing about the film is that Ned Kelly is just searching for a father figure, and then after they all fail him, he has to take charge of his life and others without any example of what a good man looks like to inspire him. He lives in the most wild time for Australia and his personality grows to fill not just the empty void of the outback but the hole in his family structure and psyche. It is, ultimately, a daddy issues movie. In this way the film so successfully unpacks not just the myth of Ned Kelly but how we create cultural myths in general. The film takes a razor-sharp scalpel to the idea of the ‘great man’ that has defined so much of European and in turn Colonialist history. You see so many people trying desperately to be some horrific parody of manhood, including the emasculated Nicolas Hoult, who at one point interrogates a baby at gunpoint to seem more like a big, strong man. The use of dresses in the film is then very interesting, as far as I can tell this is not historically accurate but it does put an interesting shade on this idea of toxic masculine myths. The film is about the myth that Ned tries to tell about himself, that gets rejected by the colonialists and replaced with a new one by the populace. It’s a man mythologizing himself, his oppressors mythologizing the myth, and then the oppressed mythologizing that, and through that, we see how Ned’s, still self-aggrandizing story of a scared little boy who had a very blaze approach to gender, full of flaws and insecurities and toxic masculinity, is turned into a folk hero ubermensch through a society that celebrates men. The truth, the helpful, healing truth, is lost, even if the story that is true in the fiction of the film isn’t true in real life. The film is about the way in which truth is lost. In this way, if The True History of the Kelly Gang is a daddy issues movie, then it posits that all of society touched by colonialism has daddy issues, and needs an example of what strong, non-toxic masculinity looks like, and I think all of our elections at the moment are baring that out. 

The film is incredibly thematically rich but what makes this film work is what has always made Kurzel’s films work, his incredible sense of style. In the same way as someone like Brian de Palma, Justin Kurzel just understands cinema. He just understands how shots fit together, how to conjure up atmosphere just with a single image, a push in, and an edit. He understands how to speak in the language of film. This comes out in some of the film’s best set pieces. Including a shootout towards the end that is one of the most viscerally unpleasant but riotous experiences I’ve ever seen in a movie. Kurzel takes this film to places you do not expect, and places that reveal the true character of this fictional iteration of Kelly perfectly. This shootout goes to such thorough places of desperation that the fact that Kelly keeps on going with all of his Aussie bluster and charm is so striking, and you begin to see just how much of his identity is constructed, how much masculinity is performed as a defense mechanism. 

This, all this theming is done visually, without anyone telling you. That doesn’t stop the shootout being just so viscerally exciting and rip-roaring, like the whole movie. The whole movie is just a thoroughly good time. Yes, it’s ill-disciplined, but when it is ill-disciplined I just get caught up in the madcap sprint of the thing. Yes, there are plot cul-de-sacs but I don’t care! The film carries you through itself like a late-night bender with your drunk, burn-out, high-school friend, it goes all around, and here and there and it’s all a bit shaggy, but that’s part of why you do it. 

There has been a lot of backlash against The True History of the Kelly Gang for its historical inaccuracies, and if you’re Australian and pissed off about the mishandling of Australian history, I feel like it would be very colonialist and missing the point of the film for me, a Brit, to tell you that you’re invalid for feeling that way, but I’d say you might also be missing the point of the film a tiny bit too. In trying to tell a story about the way we mythologize toxicity, and how myths are created, Kurzel gives himself licence to do whatever he wants. The narrative of the film doesn’t pretend to be the truth, despite the title. The narrative of the film assumes what we think to be the truth is already wrong and inaccurate, and the story is only ever what Ned Kelly is telling us is his unreliable narration of the truth. The story is so many layers removed from history that I do not see the point in getting worked up about historical inaccuracy. What the film is, and all it ever tries to be, is a romp through history that just happens to have a lot of thematic meat on its bones. 

I’m just so glad Justin Kurzel is back, and making good movies!

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