By: Jeff Martin
Before I give a review of this movie, I’d like to provide full disclosure: there has yet to be a Netflix produced show or movie that I’ve adored. Honestly, I tend to think Netflix productions are fine, I rarely like them and I’ve yet to love any of them. I can’t fully explain why, it’s kind of a “je ne sais quoi” thing. I’m just consistently unmoved by their product, and it’s left me a little skeptical. Maybe if Outlaw/King came out somewhere else, I’d have a somewhat different opinion of it. It’s always important to remember that elements outside of a movie itself can inform your tastes.
Outlaw/King comes off unevenly; clearly it aspires towards greatness, but some fatal flaws prevent it from being anything more than an entertaining time. The plot revolves around Robert the Bruce, a reluctant king whose successful rebellion for Scottish independence seemed highly unlikely when it started with a rout that left him only 50 fighting men. The strength of the story lies in its first 25 minutes. Ultimately, the movie felt compressed, and it was hard to invest heavily in the story. I could feel the narrative beats coming 10 minutes before they happened, and it was easy to tell who was going to die as a means to underscore the sacrifice of the war. The scenes where the castles are sacked, women are leered at menacingly, and men stab and bludgeon each other play like a George R.R. Martin script.
The major problem of the story is that it fails to establish why I should believe in the Scottish rebellion. I recognize I should be on the rebellion’s side; they’re the plucky underdogs and the English invented colonialism. Unfortunately, the movie does a poor job of explaining why the rebellion needs to happen. The cruelty of the English is clear once the war starts, and maybe historically there were plenty of reasons to continue to fight for independence after the Scottish and English declared peace to end an 8-year war. This isn’t a history lesson though, it’s a movie. And the rules of movies dictate that you have to give me very legitimate reasons for why the characters begin a rebellion. The movie leans too heavily on anti-lord tax and pro-William Wallace sentiment for me to believe in Robert’s rebellion. Maybe this is the key to the title though, as clearly the movie wants us to ask what the line between an outlaw and a king is.
David Mackenzie was going for something heady with this story, and he almost accomplishes engaging in an interesting debate.The title pervades every element of the story as the movie attempts to parse the philosophical difference between a gang of violent guerillas and a king. All authority derives from power, and when two kings claim to hold dominion over shared land, it usually results in one of those kings defined as a dreg of society. This truly compelling spine, which motivates many of the decisions in the storytelling of the movie, still kind of misses the point. I’m all for filmic examination of power structures, but this movie takes a lord and turns him into a king. That’s not really the kind of rebellion that means much to me. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, and neither is a Theocratic state. Countless people die in this story so that Robert the Bruce could live a more privileged life than any of them. So while the question of what differentiates a king and an outlaw is interesting, the answer Mackenzie provides is unsatisfying.
The storytelling is technically strong. The first shot of the movie is about a 9-minute-long tracking shot and it establishes all the power dynamics, all the main characters, all the character motivations, and what to expect for the end of the movie.¹ It’s emblematic of the consistently efficient and economic visual storytelling present throughout the film which reinforces the directors intelligent use of set pieces. Mackenzie cleverly puts King Robert in situations that make him look like an outlaw. He bathes naked in a river, he digs trenches with his soldiers, he commits acts of domestic terrorism…the locations in this story play a large roll in subtly determining the outlaw nature of the King’s existence. Aesthetically, outside from a few times that the color corrector clearly decided history should look grey, the shot selection comes off like a compilation of greatest hits. Everything looks good, but many shots don’t feel like they should exist in the same scene. There are countless striking and subjective shots, both static and moving, that stirringly communicate a character’s internal experience. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is the clear star of this movie, but he’s overshadowed by the editing. The generic twos and close ups mesh poorly with Ackroyd’s lengthier shots. Everything is well-shot, well-lit, and well-designed, but ultimately the stitching together of the images doesn’t enhance the viewing experience and it may be detracting from Ackroyd’s work. This becomes most obvious in the final battle, which should be a visceral climax and just flat out isn’t.²
The performances in the movie are fine. Chris Pine is an underrated actor who plays modest and put-upon very well. Props to costume designer Jane Petrie who had the good sense to get Mr. Pine into a turtleneck for a scene, which is easily his best look. The leading mans accent work is fine and significantly better than his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Nobody strays into Tony Curtis territory, but it’s very clear that the key characters of Lord Bruce and Lord Douglas are not Scottish. Their faces can emote perfectly (which they do), their body language can be immensely expressive (which it is), and their fighting style can be gruesomely accurate (which it is). None of it matters when one or two main characters and many supporting characters speak and clearly sound American. Frankly, this oversight is indicative of the major oversight of this movie.
The consistent problem with Outlaw/King is that it struggles to craft complete and utter suspension of disbelief. At times, my disbelief was out the window. The opening shot of the candle, the scene of Robert at the head of a boat talking about revenge, the shot of the campsites at night before the battle of Loudoun Hill… all those moments and many more had me invested in my viewing experience. At their best, Mackenzie and Ackroyd provided scope, scale, and context for the entire story and displayed a knack for helping audiences realize exactly what’s at stake in a scene. When Robert has to walk through a gauntlet of neither enemies nor foes, Ackroyd crafts a frame that feeds the tension.
But then Aaron Taylor-Johnson speaks. Or then they edit away to a generic shot. Or the movie takes 5 minutes away from the main plot to assure me English monarchs can be extremely capricious, something I already assumed. And the momentum Mackenzie built with me previously gets ruined. When you begin questioning the choices being made not only by characters, but by the creators of the film, it makes it difficult to fully embrace the movie. Outlaw/King teeters on the edge of engaging its audience but never fully succeeds at suspending disbelief.
¹The scene borders the line between foreshadowing and basically telegraphing every element of the plot
²Anything post-Battle of the Bastards is going to have to be really well conceived to be affective. If you’ve seen that episode of G.O.T. you get a horrible sense of what the oppressiveness and claustrophobia of fighting in a melee might actually feel like. All other medieval fights needs be held to this standard.