True History of the Kelly Gang opens with a disclaimer that says “nothing you're about to see is true.” That irony generally prepares you for the experience to follow. The film doesn't let anything get in the way of action, feuding, and violence. Does it matter if it's 10 percent accurate or 100 percent? Not really. Good performances and a handful of intense scenes are more than enough to keep you engaged for two hours.
A prologue introduces us to the young Ned Kelly who, after making a bizarre discovery, supplants his father as the “man of the house.” Then his father is imprisoned and killed by a local lawman, Sergeant O'Neil (Charlie Hunnam). Stepfather Harry Power (Russell Crowe) subsequently nurtures in him a thirst for revenge. Then the movie jumps ahead several years. Ned – played as an adult by 1917's George MacKay – has a lot of bitterness. He resents his hard-edged mother Ellen (Essie Davis of The Babadook) at the same time that he craves her approval. He also finds a new nemesis, Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), after Ellen is arrested. Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) co-stars as Ned's eventual love interest.
True History of the Kelly Gang doesn't have a traditional plot. Instead, it's a series of scenes that collectively show how Ned Kelly developed his criminal mentality, formed his eventual gang, and set out to wreak a lot of havoc. Consequently, there are times when the film jumps from one thing to another somewhat confusingly. You occasionally need a minute to reorient yourself and figure out where the plot is at. Minor characters similarly appear in a such a way that it isn't initially clear who they are.
Several show-stopping scenes compensate for those issues. One is a suspenseful sequence in which Harry pressures young Ned into shooting Sergeant O'Neil. Another is a confrontation between the adult Ned and Ellen that quickly becomes explosive. The most notable, however, is a climactic ambush where strobe effects create a sense of disorientation and special lighting is used to make the attackers glow in the dark. Director Justin Kurzel (Assassin's Creed) uses the approach to convey the terror that sets in when Ned realizes he and his gang are trapped.
Rather than acting as a history lesson, True History of the Kelly Gang strives to work as portrait of a man descending into madness. As Ned's unchecked anger grows, taking him to scarier places, the film itself becomes more manic and stylized to reflect his frenzied state of mind. The idea, presumably, is that someone like Ned Kelly would have to be mentally unhinged to some degree. All of the trauma and misfortune that befalls him builds up to a place where his morality becomes skewed. It's a different approach to take, one that separates this movie from others about the infamous criminal.
George MacKay is quite good in the lead role. Early scenes find Ned as a bit of a blank slate. As the story progresses, the actor amps up what he does physically and vocally, showing us how crazed the character is becoming. The supporting cast is good, too. Russell Crowe only appears briefly, but makes a huge impression as Harry, a guy who's benevolent and malicious simultaneously. Essie Davis, meanwhile, is a powerhouse as Ellen, a fierce, intimidating woman who takes no guff from anybody.
True History of the Kelly Gang might not satisfy viewers looking for a traditional take on the outlaws. A desire to be non-traditional is what makes it intriguing, though. This may not be the definitive movie about Ned Kelly, but it's a skillfully-made picture with plenty of thrilling drama.
out of four
True History of the Kelly Gang is rated R for strong violence throughout, bloody images, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.