“Nothing about this is true” reads an opening title for “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” a movie newly arriving on cable systems and video-on-demand platforms. It’s a puckish admission of how far the usual “Based on a True Story” apple falls from the cinematic tree. It also gives director Justin Kurzel the freedom to push his tale — a recounting of the life of Ned Kelly, Australia’s equivalent to Billy the Kid — to the very edge of phantasmagoric folktale surrealism.
And if he pushes it over the edge in the bargain? That seems to be part of the game plan.
Kelly (1854-1880) was a “bushranger” — what they called a highwayman in the antipodes — who built up a fearsome legend through robbery, murder, and bloodthirsty resistance to authority. The leader of a ragtag army, he wore a suit of armor made from a plow blade and represented an outburst of vengeful underclass anger toward Victorian authority. A Robin Hood to some, a boogeyman to others, he has been represented in countless books, stage dramas, and movies. Kelly was played by Mick Jagger in 1970 and Heath Ledger in 2003. He remains Australia’s all-purpose Id.
Adapting Peter Carey’s well-regarded novel from 2000 — Carey serves as producer as well — Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant situate Kelly at the center of a colonial society heaving itself out of savagery into a civilization that’s in many ways more brutal. The young Ned (played with stalwart presence by Orlando Schwerdt) grows up the eldest son of a doomed Irish immigrant (Ben Corbett) and a ferocious mother (Essie Davis, Kurzel’s wife and the star of “The Babadook”); the latter sells him to a notorious outback criminal named Harry Power (Russell Crowe) for schooling in the arts of brigandage.
Crowe has a high old time as this genial, larger-than-life Satan, but he’s out of the picture soon enough and Ned grows up to be played by George MacKay — the nameless soldier-hero of the recent “1917” — as a conflicted young Hamlet. He wants to live an honest life, but everything conspires to push him into criminality: his dragon-mother and a family that specializes in horse theft; an outgoing local officer of the law, Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) who trades sex for favors; an incoming Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who presents himself as Ned’s friend and is anything but.
These are real names, based on real people and real incidents, but “The True History of the Kelly Gang” uses them as figures in a hallucinatory fever dream, one dedicated to dismantling any number of the country’s cultural myths. One of those myths is that of Australian manliness. Ned’s father, we’re told, had a predilection for ladies’ frocks that Ned’s brother, Dan (Earl Cave), seems to have inherited; as “History” roils toward its bloody climax, the Kelly army swells to a wave of angry, atavistic men in women’s clothing plotting revolution in the wilderness. “Nothing scares a man like crazy,” says Dan; and the costumes — Ned wears a fetching black number with lace sleeves in the gore-smeared final confrontation — have a discombobulating effect on both their enemies and the movie as a whole.
Ned has a lady love in Mary, a girlish young prostitute in the local bordello — she’s played by Thomasin McKenzie, the discovery of the 2018 drama “Leave No Trace” — but also has a friendship with one of his gang, Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), that’s frankly homoerotic. The intent is less to reframe the real Kelly’s sexuality than to use the gender fluidity as one more aspect of the threat he poses to a rigid, freaked-out Victorian culture. It’s a potent theme, and Kurzel spins it forward with shameless cinematic intensity, using Ari Wegner’s cinematography, Nick Fenton’s ragged editing, and a spectral orchestral score by the director’s brother Jed Kurzel to ramp up the intensity.
They ramp it up so far that “The True History of the Kelly Gang” tips over into a riot of impressionistic ultraviolence in its final scenes, with MacKay’s Ned descending into a madness that’s less compelling than dramatically capricious. (The actor gives his all, but Hoult’s cocksure Fitzpatrick is the character you’ll remember.) Kurzel wants to show pure chaos erupting into a society desperate to appear respectable, but he forgets that chaos in a movie has to have some sort of structure if it’s to play at all — ironic, but there you are. He wants this “true history” to be a Rorschach blot of Australia’s national psychology, but he’s made something closer to splatter art instead.
THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG
Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Shaun Grant, based on the novel by Peter Carey. Starring George Mackay, Essie Davis, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie. Available for rental on cable systems and all streaming-video platforms. 124 minutes. R (strong violence throughout, bloody images, pervasive language, sexual content, some nudity)