“Gender is a trap” seems to be the low-key thesis statement of Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the filmmaker’s follow-up to Assassin’s Creed and Macbeth (the latter of which I loved!). Throughout his career, Kurzel has poked at societal expectations of masculinity and the different ways male characters navigate power and dominance, and True History of the Kelly Gang—although on its surface a fictionalized biography of the Australian outlaw—is another expression of that curiosity.
First, read Kristy’s review of True History of the Kelly Gang! Then, come back! Now, let’s talk!
SPOILERS FOR TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG FOLLOW
Kurzel has amassed a cast of scorchers for True History of the Kelly Gang—Essie Davis, of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and The Babadook; Nicholas Hoult, of The Favourite and Mad Max: Fury Road; Charlie Hunnam, of Papillon, The Gentlemen, and Sons of Anarchy; George MacKay, of 1917, Ophelia, and Captain Fantastic—and everyone is hot and everyone is pissed off. Australia in 1867 is a barren, brutal place, and most of our characters are transplants, either Irish convicts or English oppressors. (“English oppressor” being a direct quote. There is an allusion to the Aboriginal people of Australia, but the film doesn’t engage with them outside of a commentary on the racism they suffered thanks to the arrival of the Europeans. This movie isn’t interested in telling that story, as The Nightingale did.)
Anyway! This corner of Van Demon’s Land is unforgiving, nearly uninhabitable. Trees are black, dried up, knotted, as if they were all electrocuted at once. The land is either dusty, sandy, and barren, or lush jungle. Neither is welcoming, and neither can really be worked. What jobs are there here? You’re either poor, stealing to make ends meet or selling your body, or you’re the police, taking advantage of these hardships or punishing those who don’t perform their poverty in the right way.
In the former category are most of the salt-of-the-earth characters in True History of the Kelly Gang. The titular and very Irish Ned Kelly (played as a child by the impressive Orlando Schwerdt and as an adult by the wiry MacKay) grows up watching his mother Ellen (Davis) trade blow jobs and moonshine for enough cash to feed her family, and his father Red (Ben Corbett), recently released from prison, slowly decay before his eyes, descending into alcoholism. The marriage is not a happy one, and the English Sgt. O’Neil (Hunnam) takes advantage of it, trying to convince Ellen to leave Red for him, trying to cozy up to Ned, and trying to ruin Red in his children’s eyes. To Ned, he says Red is a cross-dresser, a man who gets some thrill or satisfaction out of wearing a red dress; when the boy finds the gown in question, hidden under a pile of rocks, he burns it.
In a world this harsh, there is no space for gender questioning or sexual experimentation (at least, not yet). Men are men. Ned says that O’Neil’s sneering comments about his father inspired “vile thoughts that bred like maggots.” He becomes angrier, more violent, which Ellen encourages. (Davis would make an excellent Lady Macbeth.) When Red eventually dies in police custody and O’Neil thinks he has an opportunity with Ellen, she rejects him and instead courts a bushranger, robber, and murderer, Harry Power (Russell Crowe). She invites him into her home, where he basically solicits her over the dinner table, brags about his cunnilingus abilities, and leads the children in a singalong that replaces the “Cont” in “Constable” with “Cunt.” Harry is feral but mannered, wild but well-respected, and Ellen is convinced that he’ll teach Ned how to be a man. Not weak, like Red. She needs a provider. So without telling Ned, she sells him to Harry so he can learn how to trick, rob, and kill people from the best. You know, as you do!
The extremely strict binaries between men and women in True History of the Kelly Gang and how gender is performed are what push and pull Ned and cause so much of his anguish, both as a child and as an adult. Ellen’s only resource for sale is her body, and she feels no shame in using it to rub salt in the wounds of others. When an English woman, the mother of a boy Ned saved from drowning, comes to their home to offer Ned a private education, Ellen is disgusted. In turn, she disgusts the woman by exposing her breast, asking what the woman is really after; Ned sees it all. Later, when Ned falls in love with a young single mother Mary (Thomasin McKenzie) who also worked as a prostitute, Ellen is aghast, even though she herself has taken a lover who is young enough to be her son. If Ned was just going to be with a woman who sold her body anyway, why not stay single and stay with his mother? What could Mary have that Ellen doesn’t? It feels incestuous, sure, but more than anything, codependent and desperate. Ellen has been a woman in the only way she knows how. She wants Ned to be a man in the way she expects, and his refusal to do that enrages her. In this environment, where women are nearly universally beholden to the whims of men, Ellen tries to turn the tables by making Ned reliant on her—but in a catch-22 like that, no one wins.
Blurred by her own disappointment, what Ellen doesn’t realize about her son—but what the movie intentionally suggests in its latter half, when Ned becomes an infamous outlaw with an outsized reputation—is how he also serves as a representation of masculine desire to others. I haven’t read Kurzel’s source text, the same-named 2000 novel by Peter Carey, so I’m not sure if Carey suggests at any point in his work that Kelly was bisexual or gay. But there is a noticeable amount of gay yearning and subtext in Kurzel’s film, primarily in Ned’s relationship with Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan). Ned says that Joe has “partiality to my company,” and when the pair are first shown together, they’re wrestling and tousling around in the back of a moving train, the whole scene tense with sexual energy, especially when Ned winds up on top. Joe follows Ned in whatever he does, becoming one of his closest comrades as they plan a mass hostage-taking and a final showdown with British authorities. The night before the gunfight, huddled up under the same blankets, Joe swears, “I’m your man,” and we see more imagery of the two of them rolling around together. Later, during a meeting with one of the hostages, Ned leans over and kisses the man on the mouth; when Joe dies, tied to a tree and tortured, Ned is enraged by his killing.
None of this is to definitively claim that Ned Kelly was, in reality, gay or bisexual or straight or whatever else—the movie begins, it must be reiterated, by flashing onscreen the text “Nothing you’re about to see is true,” and to go back to the book itself, it’s categorized as a novel—but that True History of the Kelly Gang is purposefully interrogating notions of femininity and masculinity as a way to imagine Ned’s rejection of authority and society. When Ned realizes that his younger brother Danny (Earl Cave) and his own best friend put on fancy women’s dresses before ambushing farms and robbing horses, he’s horrified that his brother will end up like his father—until he realizes that they’re wearing the dresses as a way to confuse the victims of their theft, who don’t expect to see men in feminine garb. In this place where men have so much more power than women, why would the former dress as the latter? Because they’re fucking with people’s expectations as a way to fuck up their possessions. The image is purposefully incongruous in order to unnerve. And, as Danny slyly says, he likes wearing the dresses, and sure, maybe he and his friend are having sex with each other. Who is Ned to judge?
Eventually, when we see Ned in his own gown—a sheer, black lace number, complemented by coal dust smeared on like makeup and iron body armor to protect from enemy bullets—it’s a definitive sign of Ned as a full-on outlaw. “Are we going to rewrite our own history? Are we going to write it in blood?” Ned yells, firing up his men, all wearing dresses too. His mixture of masculine and feminine aesthetics is meant to be jarring and uncomfortable, and it’s a redemptive moment for his father, too, who so disgusted Ned as a child with his own hidden red dress. It’s drag as rebellion.
Aside from how True History of the Kelly Gang navigates questions about gender performance—about the thwarted desires of Ellen, who so desired masculinity, and by her son, who embraced the feminine instead—it’s also just really very thirsty, often in a way that wonders how the physical act of sex is less a manifestation of affection and instead another opportunity for coveting, dominance, and yes, violence. “I always have appetites, Ellen … I dream of lamb like yours, Ellen. Pink. Tender,” Crowe’s Harry coos at the Kelly dinner table; later on, he encourages Ned to shoot off a naked Sgt. O’Neil’s penis. When we properly meet an adult Ned, who was put away during his teens for shooting Sgt. O’Neil in the thigh, he’s naked but for his boxer briefs, anachronistic punk rock playing.
When he reconnects with Ellen, she tells him “There ain’t a thing in this land for a woman but loneliness” before cradling his face like a lover. Nicholas Hoult’s Constable Fitzpatrick, another English officer who is a foil for Ned, is introduced naked, save for his sock garters, in a brothel, boasting of how “fucking in a dress … kinda feels like you’re breaking the rules or something.” Later on, after Fitzpatrick arrests Ellen, he strips to his underwear and lazily masturbates in front of her before she jumps on him, scratching at his face, and he throws her on the ground. How she launches herself at him almost looks like it could be a crazed embrace, before he punches her in the face. In the film’s final moments, when Ellen and Ned—both separately in jail—meet again before his hanging, they kiss each other frantically, not explicitly on the mouth but pretty damn close.
“Everything in this fucking country is trying to kill us” is the pervasive mood throughout True History of the Kelly Gang, and with that despondency established, while watching the film, I thought often of—wait for it—that Gavin Rossdale lyric “There’s no sex in your violence.” True History of the Kelly Gang feels like a movie doing its best to undo a statement so polarizing, instead searching for fertile overlap between male and female, between masculinity and femininity, between sex and violence. The subversiveness of that quest, and the broadening of what we mean when we say the word “outlaw,” are another step forward for Kurzel in his cinematic investigation of what makes a man.
True History of the Kelly Gang was made available for VOD and digital rental beginning on April 24, 2020.