Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Opening online this week: True History of the Kelly Gang. I wish I could say this IFC release was doing a revenue-sharing thing with local theaters, but thus far I don’t have evidence of that.
True History of the Kelly Gang
One thing missing from my knowledge of the 19th-century Australian outlaw/folk hero Ned Kelly—not a large storehouse to being with—was an awareness of his animus toward pastries. At least, this is a takeaway from the new biopic True History of the Kelly Gang, highlighted in two typically deranged moments, taken from different parts of his life. As a child, Ned (played by Orlando Schwert) expresses his fury at the realization that he’s been sold into a kind of outlaw apprenticeship. Rejecting the treats offered by his Falstaffian mentor, Harry Power (Russell Crowe), Ned gazes on the crepes flambée before him and shouts, “I don’t want your fucking pancakes!” It’s a convincing moment.
Much later in the film and in his criminal career, Ned (now played by George MacKay, of 1917) tires of hearing tales about the alluring possibility of migration to the United States; included in the enticements is the news that the country has sugary fried treats with a hole in the middle. This is not for Ned, a true son of Australia: “I don’t give a fuck about no doughnuts!” he yells, putting an end to any escape from his fatal destiny.
There is so much in True History of the Kelly Gang that is cracked and over-heated, I assume director Justin Kurzel is fine with us taking these outbursts as comical. Think of this film as a kind of upside-down cousin to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: It replaces Coppola’s powdered bon-bons with gore-soaked raunch, but both films seek to goose up their historical pageants with modern ’tudes and styles, including up-to-date music (Kurzel’s brother Ned provides the impressive and sometimes heavy-metal musical stylings). There’s room for invention: The Ned Kelly story has been frequently filmed, including starring turns for Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger—quite an interesting, risk-taking performance by the latter.
No depravity is spared in this parade of hardships, from Ned Kelly’s tortured relationship with his exploited mother (Essie Davis from The Babadook) to his charged rivalry with the local constable (Nicholas Hoult, committedly louche). Kelly’s romance with a young mother (Thomasin MacKenzie, of JoJo Rabbit) is closer to the kind of thing you’d find in a sentimental Western, however, and leaves this gifted actress without much to play. Exploring—or maybe wallowing in—these relationships is more important to the film (adapted by Shaun King from Peter Carey’s novel) than a coherent timeline; there’s a lumpiness to the tale-telling, with gobs of space for the little boy’s traumatic experiences, but a rushed treatment of Kelly’s later extralegal exploits.
If the movie is over-cranked to a sometimes laughable degree, one must at least give Kurzel his due: He has visions, including the startling overhead views of a blasted outback as his horsemen gallop through. There’s an ingenious visual motif, from the very opening, that relates to Kelly’s final showdown, when he wore handmade armor that resulted in him viewing the world through a cramped horizontal aperture; the repeated visual strategy bakes in Kelly’s finish from the very start. But, like his spiritual predecessors Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker, Kurzel’s got a TV-commercial director’s eye for truly arresting images combined with an inability to know when to lay off.
At one point Kurzel shows Kelly cleansing himself by sitting in a bathtub outside, the vast dead-tree landscape yawning out before him, as a fire burns beneath the tub, like a human Sterno. The moment is like so much of this maddening film: ingeniously rendered, and way over the top.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.