Netflix movies don’t have the luxury of an audience’s full attention. There are dishes to be washed, clothes to be folded, tweets to be tweeted. Just a lot of distractions that can lessen the movie watching experience. Some filmmakers are gravitating toward the streaming giant regardless. Partially due to the allure of their feature being easily seen by over 137 million people. They don’t have to convince someone to spend $15 for a single ticket. Yet they do have to at least convince someone to pay attention. In Outlaw King, director David Mackenzie opens with a one-take sequence lasting nearly 10 minutes. It establishes the central conflict, gives a taste of the action to come, and immediately immerses its viewer into 14th century Scotland. The long take is not Mackenzie’s only method to keep people’s eyes to the screen. Though it sure is an effective way to start a movie.
Chris Prine stars as Robert Bruce, one of the rightful heirs to the Scottish throne who is forced to submit to King Edward of England after William Wallace is driven into hiding. In other words, Outlaw King is a sequel to the Braveheart story. The aftermath of Wallace’s defeat still looms large, and Robert Bruce is struggling to decide if he should continue the fight.
Pine embraces the role with his usual blue-eyed charm and magnetism. Only this time with a decent Scottish accent. Mackenzie and Pine worked beautifully together in 2016’s stunning Hell or High Water. In Outlaw King, Macheknzie showcases his star, but leaves a capable cast of character actors with little to do. The most memorable role player is easily Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) as Elizabeth Burgh. She is another Scottish royal who becomes Robert Bruce’s wife and the stepmother to his only daughter. She shows compassion to her subjects and integrity to her values in front of her husband. Their mutual respect makes their chemistry believable. Just like in Lady MacBeth, Pugh’s best skill is exuding strength and cunning.
Despite these character traits, she is still reduced to a damsel in distress and motivation for the hero. The trope is a prime example of the character misfires Mackenzie makes in Outlaw King. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, one of the most eccentric character actors of recent memory (Nocturnal Animals, Avengers: Age of Ultron), is only unleashed in one action scene. For a director who constructed poignant, complex relationships with both heroes and villains in Hell or High Water, it’s disappointing to see the emotional core lacking here.
As the title suggests, Robert Bruce decides to rebel against the English empire and don the Scottish crown. Once the side-by-side photo comparison of the Outlaw King and the Burger King is seen, it is hard to be unseen.
The sudden change of heart causes conflict between Bruce’s allies and his enemies. Constantly running or under attack, Robert Bruce leads a small, disheveled group of soldiers from castle to castle to either recruit troops or pillage for supplies, culminating in a colossal final battle in the third act. Billy Howle (Dunkirk, On Chesil Beach) plays Prince Edward, a despicable villain with a despicable bowl cut. He is not always the most intimidating antagonist, but after a period of cruel choices and emotional instability he becomes a worthy oppressor for Robert Bruce to take on.
Mackenzie does not shy away from the cold brutality of the era. With long takes and well-choreographed action sequences, Outlaw King features some of the most visceral, spectacular set pieces of 2018. The technical achievements are mostly saved for the final battle. Mackenzie portrays the frenzied, primal tendencies of humans at war and how these tendencies can lead to ruthless consequences. You can feel as every sword, axe and arrow draws blood.
Outlaw King might be emotionally hollow, but Mackenzie’s active camera keeps the film breathing. Most notably on the first long take, he is constantly changing perspective, giving energy to ordinary dialogue scenes. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also deserves credit for finding breathtaking views of Scotland to photograph. Ackroyd and Mackenzie make Scotland look like a fantastic tourist destination. All without losing the dirt and the grime that these soldiers tolerated every day.
Based on its release date and media coverage, Outlaw King looks to be another attempt for Netflix at prestige filmmaking. Mackenzie premiered the movie at the Toronto Film Festival this year. The runtime was originally 30 minutes longer. After it was poorly received by audiences, Mackenzie constructed a trimmed version of the movie. Even though Netflix wants to be considered for Oscar nominations, it is difficult to find potential categories for Outlaw King. Despite the elegant camerawork, the ambitious vista and award worthy material handed to Chris Pine, it remains a long shot in almost any category.
The obvious comparison the film has been drawing is to Game of Thrones. A blockbuster show currently on hiatus. It’s not hard to think about how easily Outlaw King could have been a Netflix series. A format that the streaming service is much more successful with. There would obviously be more opportunities for action sequences, but more importantly for stronger character development. Outlaw King is enough to tide over GOT fans until the last season premieres.