In true western, or in this case, bushranger movie fashion, the edgiest and most intense moments in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang come in the moments when someone is being held at gunpoint. Drama properly peaks with the potential power released by one little curved metal lever hinging a mechanism of murder and mayhem. The action itself to squeeze that trigger is easy. The decision and ramifications, as we well know, are not.
With that anecdote in mind, there’s not a rushed gunpoint decision in this movie. These suspenseful showdowns of thought and monologue carry just as much risk for the person staring down the sight as the one on the other end of the barrel. Choices are made. There can be a loss of innocence when you pull a trigger. On the other hand, survival, in the most instinctual way, can be taught from it. Likewise, authority, manhood, and reputations can be earned. That is much to risk or gain on the flexing of a few knuckles.
The featured man often holding that pistoled pendulum of power or ruin in his hands is the storied Australian folk hero Ned Kelly. 1917’s George McKay gets lean and mean to follow storied performers like Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger in embodying this historical figure. Kurzel’s movie is quick to telegraph that “nothing about this story is true” while still carrying the title matching the Peter Carey source novel. That creates two things: a challenge of substance and the equivalent of a violent bedtime story that makes “Billy the Kid” seem like Goodnight, Moon.
The child born Edward “Ned” Kelly we meet is a preteen (Orlando Schwerdt in his feature debut) around 1867 incited by the upbringing of squalor and hardscrabble pathos of family loyalty fed by his borderline harlot mother Ellen (the powerful Essie Davis of The Babadook). He’s still too young to become the man of the shanty when his incarcerated father dies and his mother is dominated by the abusive authority of the local lawman Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam).
To toughen the boy up, Ellen “sells” Ned to a veteran bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, making the most of his robust frame and age). He is a suitor and protector with the aim to groom Ned as a new helpful accomplice. The kid may learn the skillful initiatives of hideouts, robberies, getaways, and spoils, but this also puts a gun in the young man’s hands and begins that aforementioned struggle pulling triggers.
When we fast-forward to Ned as a man (McKay), he is bare-knuckle boxing in his skivvies for rich wagerers, including Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) who takes a liking to his toughness. After a decade away, Ned returns to his homestead to find Ellen with a new beau (singer-songwriter Marlon Williams) his age and his younger brother Danny (Earl Cave) in trouble with Fitzpatrick for stealing horses. When prison is threatened on Ellen and Danny, guns are pointed and shots are fired that turn podunk mongrels into outlaws.
George McKay comports himself quite well in this leading role. The magnitude he shows between his blood-soaked rage and his expressions of loyal caring for family and romance (in the form of a woefully underused Thomasin McKenzie from Jojo Rabbit) build his screen presence. His clean-shaven face switches from dour to deranged with measured ferocity. The same can be said for Essie Davis. When her sandpaper soothing side breaks, hell and vitriol spew forth brilliantly. They are the standouts of this game cast.
Anyone who has seen filmmaker Justin Kurzel since his Michael Fassbender-led treatment of Macbeth knows that he has a penchant for potent atmosphere. Cinematographer Ari Wegner paints a few layers of that with striking overhead angles, moody lighting, and strobes of violent closeups. As always, Justin’s brother Jed Kurzel provides a score of disquiet bowed over strings. The barbs are present to prod and cut, but a bigger sense of sweep is not.
That is where the challenge of substance circles back for True History of the Kelly Gang. Once Ned and his associates go on the lam, this is normally where the national legend of the rebellious and anti-authority Kelly Gang as Australian Robin Hoods takes off and takes over. Unfortunately, that elevation is slowed and squelched. Entire exploits are truncated or ignored, even in a place where fiction is pushed to take the place of fact. Instead, a more internalized story of personal narration and supposedly self-written history is woven before a gallows finish. McKay is the showcase of that route, but not the bigger impact or causes of the truer story.
Legends require embellishment. For whatever reasons, the swelling reverence and the contagious public support, included even in Carey’s fictional source novel, are excised from emphasis by screenwriter Shaun Grant. That’s the sweep and space where legends reside. That’s the real volume, not the screaming confrontations or the gunfire, that make Ned Kelly and company mythic. Without some of that enveloping weight, all this amounts to is an abridged and radical folk tale without the proper embellishment.