Since his debut film The Snowtown Murders in 2011, director Justin Kurzel has established a unique voice as a filmmaker. When Kurzel makes a film, you’re in for something like you’ve never seen before. Following The Snowtown Murders, Kurzel made a dark, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is unlike any Shakespeare adaption before or after it. His third feature film was Assassin’s Creed, adapted from the popular video game. Though it didn’t make a ton of money at the box office and wasn’t a big hit with critics, Assassin’s Creed is a movie that throws us right into the video game, something no other video game movie had ever done. What I’m saying is, Kurzel makes movies unlike anyone else in the business.
Kurzel’s latest film, True Story of the Kelly Gang, is a Kurzel history lesson as only he could make it. This is a fictionalized account of Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang, one of Australia’s most notorious criminals. It is a dark, visceral, violent film that, even when it gets a little shaky towards the end, is a film I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
True History of the Kelly Gang looks at Ned Kelly’s life in three parts. The first part is titled “Boy”, and it looks at Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) as a young boy. Ned’s life growing up was very tough. His mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), loved him very much and did anything she could to help her family survive, though that put a strain on her marriage to Red (Ben Corbett). Red was never very present in Ned’s life and ended up getting arrested for a crime that Ned committed and dying in prison. Ellen then hires Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a burly criminal, to take Ned under his wing and teach him a life of crime, like how to use a gun, how to steal, the things she thinks are the essential for survival. Ned’s wrong-doings land him in prison, where he spends the rest of his adolescences.
The next chapter is “Man”, where Ned (George McKay) has grown up and is out of prison. He heads back home to his mother and finds that her new lover has hooked Ned’s brother and his friends into being criminals. Ned goes against this at first, trying to stay away from the life he had as a child. But as Ned’s life begins crumble around him, he succumbs to the life he didn’t want to and starts The Kelly Gang, a group of people who grew up without a father figure who see Ned as their leader and do crimes in lavish dresses.
The final chapter is titled “Monitor” and it shows Ned at his full insanity, acting like a prophet of sorts. Full of of revenge and madness, we watch the downfall of Ned Kelly and his gang, all leading up to an epic, bloody showdown in which Ned wore bulletproof armor in order to survive, only to be caught by authorities and be put to death by hanging.
In most gangster movies, especially in America, we glamorize the gangster or criminal at the forefront of the plot. We flock and admire the criminals of Scarface, Reservoir Dogs, and Goodfellas. Heck, we can’t help but love Danny Ocean and all of his thievery. But Kurzel isn’t interested in that. Instead, he shows us the roots of what made Ned the infamous gangster that he was. The tough upbringing, the lessons learned from Harry Power, the things he and his family went through that pushed Ned to the edge and become one of the most infamous criminals in Australian history. He wasn’t a national hero, he wasn’t publicized in the press, he wasn’t stealing money and giving it to the poor. He was just a kid who succumbed to the environment he grew up in and lived in his whole life. This is more of a complex character study rather than the story of a criminal and his crimes.
Kurzel assembles a great cast for the film. Schwerdt, who plays young Ned, is magnificent. He shows a range of emotion rare for someone at such a young age. We watch as his innocent vision of the world becomes corrupted, erasing all innocence and forcing him to mature at faster than he should. Essie Davis is quickly becoming an actress I want to see all the time, as she gives just as good of a performance here as she did in her 2014 breakout, The Babadook. Russell Crowe gives one of my favorite performances of 2020 as Power. A husky, burley, intimidating man, Crowe is menacing and terrifying, yet he shows a little sympathy towards young Ned, giving Power another layer than just a one-note criminal. McKay does a fine job as older Ned, though I had trouble believing him as a “prophet” of sorts. It isn’t a bad performance, but one I was expecting more from.
True History of the Kelly Gang is a stunning film. Like all of Kurzel’s films, this is a gorgeous looking movie. The violence in the movie is jarring and will shake you, but smartly placed and executed. The film does run a little long and gets a bit slow during some of the “Man” segment, but even during those slow parts, I was still hooked by Kurzel’s style. This yet another bold, brutal, gripping watch from one of the great, young auteurs working today.
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