Blasting its way into theaters during a slow movie season, the neo-Western brilliance of Hell or High Water took audiences by storm, leaving many wondering what the next film from director David McKenzie would bring.
The answer is Outlaw King, a historical epic set in 1300s Scotland. As ambitious a project for distributor Netflix as it is a departure from McKenzie’s previous work, it at least has one tether to its predecessor in the form of leading man Chris Pine, trading a Southern accent for Scottish one as he portrays Robert the Bruce, a Scottish noble who’s just agreed to surrender to King Edward of England.
Pine is commendable in his portrayal of Robert. His Scottish accent is surprisingly on point and he instills the character with a rigid sense of moral righteousness that makes him a king worth following, though he is far from Outlaw King‘s only virtue.
Many of the strengths of McKenzie’s film are prevalent right in its opening scene: a breath-taking nearly 10 minute take beautifully photographed by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker). As Robert wanders around the camp, interacting with soldiers from both England and Scotland, there’s a feel for exactly what this era of history was all about. In other words, McKenzie employs gritty realism to make this story feel as if its unfolding before our very eyes rather than being dramatized.
While that feeling of authenticity never wavers, problems do come into play whenever Robert goes against England, taking the crown of Scotland for himself. An action like this should kick the plot into high gear; instead, it opens the flood gates for a myriad of subplots that fight for control of the story.
There were five writers on Outlaw King and it shows. The run time of 121 minutes does not allow enough time for characters such as Robert’s wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) or even the main antagonist Prince Edward of Wales (Billy Howle) to get much development, which is a shame because every plot line here carries a high level of intrigue. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s utterly committed performance as the demented soldier James Douglas could’ve made a film in and of itself.
The editing by Jake Roberts also lets the film down at many moments, cutting vital scenes short for the sake of keeping the story moving. What makes this so unfortunate is that the parts that remain in Outlaw King are fantastic. The final battle hits all the right notes, throwing a brutal display of ferocity on the screen that it’s hard not to admire. Heck, there’s never a dull moment in the film, the problem is that it just never coalesces into a cohesive work. There’s a sense that maybe this story would’ve been better served as a television series rather than film.
While this review has spent a great deal of time lamenting the lack of focus in Outlaw King, it’s a film that deserves praise for what it accomplishes. David McKenzie once again proves himself a beyond competent director and I’d love to see him try a hand at another historical epic in the future. For now, it’s best to mark this very big swing for the fences as a small victory for Netflix.
Outlaw King is now streaming on Netflix!