The extended one-take that opens up David Mackenzie’s historical epic Outlaw King has been sticking in many critics’ minds when they talk about the movie and it’s stuck in mine too. There’s the showy technical wizardry, of course, starting inside King Edward I of England’s (Stephen Dillane) tent in the dying embers of the unseen William Wallace’s failed Scottish rebellion as he forces Scotland’s remaining lords, most notably Robert Bruce III (Chris Pine) to swear fealty to England, moves out one side of the tent to take in a duel between Robert and Edward, Prince of Wales (a sputtering mad-eyed Billy Howle hamming it up for all it’s worth), moving back inside the tent, and finally out the other end to the reveal of a gigantic flaming trebuchet Edward I fires at a nearby castle before finally accepting the Scots’ surrender.
But formalistic prowess has never meant shit to me when talking about long-takes, even when they’re as impressive as the one featured here (though marred by the same dodgy CGI that mars the rest of the film). Rather, this opening sticks in my mind because it’s the first and last time that Outlaw King displays anything resembling a sense of patience. The take covers a lot of ground and sets up lots of information, but it also contains a pacing that the rest of the film lacks, letting beats hang for a moment instead of speeding through them like it’s trying to qualify for pole position in a Grand Prix.
Were the opening of Outlaw King paced like the rest of the movie, we would have dived straight from Robert swearing fealty into the shot of King Edward using the giant trebuchet without any of the connective tissue or build the scene employs to make the reveal of the trebuchet so effective. Although, like the rest of Outlaw King, the trebuchet is set-up and paid off in the same scene to never be mentioned again afterwards. Lots of Mackenzie’s latest film is like this, the focus and deliberate pacing of his recent classics Starred Up and Hell or High Water subsumed by grand Hollywood spectacle and a scope too wide to adequately squeeze into two hours of film.
Rather like the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Netflix’s latest big-name, big-budget effort to play in the same pool as the Hollywood big-boys feels more like a really enjoyable miniseries that’s been squeezed into a single feature to its ultimate detriment. Watching Outlaw King is akin to viewing a full season of a historical epic on fast-forward. Sure, you can do that, but you’re going to lose all of the emotion and thematic depth that makes a story worth telling, being left with a series of grand moments that mean nothing.
Which is pretty much exactly what ends up happening. Mackenzie’s film charts the Scottish rebellion from its brief days of fealty to the English crown, to Robert’s coronation as King of Scots after the death of his father, to his fatal mistake of murdering John Conwyn on holy ground, all the way up to the decisive Battle of Bannockburn, in about two hours and change, whilst also taking on a seemingly endless supply of support and minor characters whose often gruesome fates we’re expected to care about. Something has to give and, unsurprisingly, that “something” is anything to do with character work or a thematic underpinning. Wanting to know what the response and repercussions to Robert murdering a man on holy ground were besides a few allies saying “that’s war” and a few others going “I won’t support you”? Find another movie. Want to know why the Scots and the Scottish public, despite having already spent eight years embroiled in a hopeless war, were so willing to risk their lives to defy English rule? Taxes and pride and also the English are scum, what more do you need? Want to learn more about Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s loyal James Douglas beyond what very minor bits of ADR they could squeeze into the edges, or how Robert felt about having to forsake chivalry in favour of guerrilla tactics and sacking his own castles to get the upper hand? Buy a book.
Much more problematically than all of its side characters having little to contribute in action or personality – Florence Pugh is especially wasted as Robert’s wife, Elizabeth de Bergh, shunted into the rebellion’s sidelines despite getting a whole load of virtue-signalling speeches about her refusal to be shunted into the rebellion’s sidelines – is that there’s a giant black hole at the centre of Outlaw King where a protagonist is supposed to be.
This is necessarily not Chris Pine’s fault, he works those baby blues with as much power as he can muster and his Scottish accent only very rarely slips to Groundskeeper Willie standards, but he is lost here. You would be too if you were forced to anchor a giant historical epic without actually having a character to play. There’s never any sense that Robert was a real person with a life, wants and needs, or even thoughts going on up in his head, aside from his chivalry and refusal to force his wife to have sex on their arranged wedding night cos he’s One of the Good Ones. He just stands the situation with the English until he can’t stands no more. He’s a symbol and symbols without further extrapolation make for boring movie protagonists.
So, without anything substantial happening under the surface, all that’s left is the spectacle and visceral action. Mackenzie at least excels at those, his preference for gritty realism providing many stomach-churning dispatchings with a regular frequency – although that realism also means that both sides have extremely similar scavenged war uniforms which makes the bigger battles (somewhat by design) hard to keep track of. But it says something about Outlaw King‘s priorities that it can’t find room to give a young squire any actual character traits but are supposed to have formed such an attachment to that his disappearance and subsequent reappearance are played as big emotional beats, yet it can find time to show us in lovely detail what the process of hanging-drawing-and-quartering does to a man’s intestines.
Whether it be due to time constraints, a lack of imagination, or a severe mixing up of priorities, Outlaw King is an empty movie that feels actively hobbled from achieving anything close to its potential. The intensity of Mackenzie is here, but the drama and intelligence that characterise his work are nowhere to be seen.