Outlaw King, co-written and directed by David Mackenzie, brings to Netflix what might be one of its strongest exclusives to date. Like the historical epics that used to dominate the cinema, Outlaw King is epic in scope and brutal in tone, but it also has heart to it – a proud Scottish heart that beats strong (and I’m not just saying that because I am a fellow Scot), but the film isn’t without faults. Some serious pacing issues and a lack of depth can sometimes leave the film feeling a little out of breath. I’m very excited to explore all that Outlaw King has to offer. Is this one of Netflix’s best? Maybe. Do the film’s failings lessen its impact – it’s effectiveness? Again, maybe. Let’s explore those questions and much, much more in my review.
Based upon the true story, we follow Robert The Bruce – played by Chris Pine – the rightful King of Scotland as he attempts to reclaim his country from the very imposing and very powerful English rulers. It will take loyal men, cunning tactics and the strength of the Scottish people to see Robert and his people victorious.
The opening scene to David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King is inspiringly well done. The scope of his one-take opening simply wows the more it goes on, and as I sat there watching it unfold, I felt a growing excitement start within me and build more and more as the scene continued. To say it’s a strong opener would be an understatement. It is in fact a statement itself – an unavoidable and unforgettable one by the director. When the title card finally washed across the screen, I let out a breath and prepared myself for a film I was expecting – hoping – would be truly something great. Sadly, Outlaw King didn’t ever reach those levels of effectiveness again (for me) but it came damn close a number of times.
You see, with Outlaw King, my overall reaction to it, and my time spent with it, was mixed. I at times completely loved it and was wowed by the spectacle and scale. While other times I was disappointed by the structural issues and overlooked story beats. I never lost my enthusiasm or was put off by Outlaw King, but my time with it left me… conflicted.
I think the largest issue that affects Outlaw King – and the issue that bleeds into every area and causes problems for them – is the films pacing and editing. If I were to simply summarise the pacing in the film, it would be that it is both a blessing and a curse for Outlaw King.
This is a film that moves, and it moves quick. In fact, it’s a film that moves so quickly at times that it feels as if it’s tripping over itself to get to the next scene. Now in a way that’s a blessing for the film because it means it is never an experience that feels like it’s lagging. You’ll never be sitting there watching this film and feel it to be dragging you through scenes and generally boring you with drawn out moments that you don’t care about. You’ll never have the time to have such thoughts, because before you can it will have moved onto something new and you’ll be interested and eager to see the next step in Robert The Bruce’s story.
But such a hurried pace is also a curse as it means much of the nuance and detail can feel as if it’s being overlooked or ignored. Outlaw King is a film that spans a significant amount of time, and in that time a lot happens. There is certainly an attempt to touch upon as much as possible, however the touch is sometimes to delicate for the effect to be properly noticed. Areas of Robert’s life; his relationship with his wife Elizabeth for example, or the larger political struggle both within England and Scotland that he must take on, can sometimes feel underdeveloped and lacking the exploration necessary to make them feel fulfilling or easy to engage with. And it’s here in this issue that the troublesome editing comes into play.
At times the editing in the film can feel a little manic. The film jumps quickly into a scene, shows something without any context and then quickly jumps away to something else. It was moments like this I found to be quite jarring and very ineffective in expanding the story or engaging me further emotionally. The film is moving so fast and trying to give time and focus to so much, that a lot of it unfortunately goes unseen. I wish the film could have taken the time to slow down a bit… rest… and just let things breath for a wee bit. That chance to expand and not have things feel so crowded would have really benefited the film in my opinion. I know there was between 25 to 30 minutes cut from the film after its debut at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) as the director felt it was necessary. But I do have to wonder if that longer cut would have been a better fit for the film and its scale. I guess we’ll never know.
And so, Outlaw King ends up feeling like a lot of the historical epics that we’ve gotten over the years; the spectacle, the political in-fighting, the expansive and brutal battles that both excite you and repulse you at the same time. It’s all very engrossing to watch. But with so much to explore and so much to develop, a lot of the nuance has to be pushed aside so that the film can get to it all. I understand why this ends up being the case for so many of these types of films, and I accept the shortcomings, but it still does leave my experience with them feeling disjointed. To be both wowed and engrossed, while also feeling unfulfilled and mildly disappointed certainly makes for… an interesting experience.
I think the perfect example of there being a lack of development or exploration of something would be in the relationship between Robert The Bruce and Elizabeth Burgh – played by Florence Pugh. In the beginning, the handling of their newly forming relationship is charming. What makes it all the better is the characterisation for both characters. Elizabeth stands tall as her own person who can more than take care of herself. She is a formidable foe to come up against. When Robert is around her it’s enjoyable to watch him bend to her will so quickly. You really get the sense that the two care and respect each other greatly. It was an aspect of the film I was really looking forward to exploring more of – both when they are together and when they are separated.
But as the films progresses, the development of their relationship halts (which is understandable, as they had to leave one another’s side for the sake of Robert’s push to reclaim Scotland’s power), but what also halts is the development of Elizabeth as an individual. She takes a back seat to the larger plot and it’s a real loss for the film. Both Florence Pugh’s performance is fantastic, and the characterisation of Elizabeth is exciting. But neither get the chance to evolve and it’s a prime example of the film having to spread itself too thin for the sake of its larger story.
But while Elizabeth loses the opportunity to shine, Robert thankfully does not. It was interesting to see a man with the potential to have such power also not have the characteristics of someone in his position. He was a quiet, contained person who only unleashed when absolutely necessary. I found Robert to be a fascinating character to watch, and what plays a big factor in that is Chris Pine’s excellent performance. Even with all that Outlaw King tackles, Pine makes sure the character never gets lost in it all. You believe Pine to be the rightful king of Scotland, whether he is quietly parlaying with his enemies or using all his thunder to instil victory in his troops; Pine becomes the character and delivers a potent performance.
Quick side not: I have to give some love to Aaron Taylor-Johnson – who plays James Douglas, Lord of Douglas – who delivers a barbaric performance. He clearly gave his all to every scene and he was an unexpected treat to watch.
The point I want/have to end on in relation to Outlaw King is the action that is on offer. When the time for political in-fighting is done and diplomacy is no longer an option, director Davis Mackenzie brilliantly orchestrates some large and thrilling to watch battle scenes. Horses ploughing through shield walls, arrows cutting down men and an honest level of brutality sees the action in the film always get the blood pumping. I remember sitting up in my seat anytime a battle was revving up, as I knew I was in for something satisfying, bloody and really well executed. It’s the type of epic battles that we all love to see in films like this and they never once disappoint.
As I mentioned earlier: my time with Outlaw left me conflicted, but what I’m not conflicted on is the undeniable talent of the film’s director, David Mackenzie. His previous film, Hell or High Water (a film that made it onto my standout films of 2016 list; feel free to click the link to check that out) is still a film I return to and adore to this day. Outlaw King proves that no matter the budget or scale of the project, Mackenzie is an extremely talented director, and one who I will continue to be excited to watch in the coming years. I can’t wait to see what he’ll go onto do with his filmmaking career!
Outlaw King is a film that is unfortunately plagued by a number of issues. Those issues slightly diminished my experience with the film, but they did not stop me from always being fully engrossed in the journey the film offered. It wowed me a fair few times and induced goosebumps a few times more (but that probably has to do with it instilling some pride in my wee Scottish heart). This is still certainly one of the better exclusives Netflix has had in recent times and one I was always happy to be watching.
I fully recommend, Outlaw King. I can’t foresee you not enjoying your time with this film. Past all the problems, there is still an extremely engaging, exciting film here and it’s one you won’t regret booting up Netflix for – which isn’t often the case when it comes to their exclusive films, that’s for sure.
I’d absolutely love to know what you thought of Outlaw King, and subsequently, my review of it. Please leave any opinions or feedback you may have in the comments section down below. If you like what you read, please consider following both/either my blog and/or my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. I’ll bring things to a close now by offering you my heartfelt thanks for taking the time to read my silly little review on my silly little blog. Thank you so much and have a wonderful day!