“Friends, join us: We have a spectacle!” So Edward I of England bellows in the extraordinary first shot of David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King,” and he isn’t kidding. Over the course of one fluid motion, the camera tracks from inside a musty tent — where Robert the Bruce (a gray-bearded Chris Pine) is renouncing his claim to the throne and joining the other prominent lords of Scotland in pledging reluctant fealty to the hegemonic English sovereign — and out onto the muddy field beyond, where the largest catapult ever constructed is waiting to hurl a flaming metal boulder at a distant castle. Somewhere along the way, we’re also introduced to the Prince of England (an eminently hatable Billy Howle), and given ample opportunity to appreciate his demented bowl cut.
In the span of roughly 10 minutes, “Outlaw King” establishes that Scotland has been cowered to its knees, that its rightful heir has been reduced to a drunken lout, and that the country’s future now lies in the hands of a cruel invader and his psychotic son. It’s only after that first cut that Mackenzie loses track of time and the film begins to fall apart.
A gritty and scattershot “Braveheart” spinoff that will make you — through gritted teeth — concede that Mel Gibson did it better, “Outlaw King” refocuses the fight for Scottish independence on Robert the Bruce, a noble-born warrior who outlived William Wallace, and eschewed his guerrilla tactics in favor of a slightly more formal approach. Ruddy and brown where Gibson’s film was lush and green, Mackenzie’s follow-up to “Hell or High Water” makes a half-hearted attempt to wrest the fight for freedom away from Hollywood myth, and return it to something more primal.
On a moment-by-moment basis, that approach allows for a compelling and intimate look inside the violent struggle that defined a nation. But when those moments are lumped together into a misshapen whole, the unfocused and interminable “Outlaw King” begins to feel like a full season of television that’s been squeezed in a vice until it was only 137 minutes long. There’s a fine line between editing a movie and torturing it — this ambitious Netflix epic bleeds out all over the big screen.
Credited to Mackenzie and four other writers, “Outlaw King” opens in 1304, with Robert the Bruce resigned to his new reality as a broken man who can only keep his land by paying English taxes. Edward I (a sly, volatile Stephen Dillane), eager to ease tension with the Scottish, arranges for Robert to marry his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (the raw and electric Florence Pugh, fast becoming one of the most vital actors in the movies today). The deference that Elizabeth displays for her new husband proves empowering, and it isn’t long before Robert is secretly asking his fellow Scotsman to unite the clans, and spontaneously murdering the ones who threaten to tell the English about his plans.
We’re given exactly two reasons to suspect that Robert is a decent guy. One: He’s played by Chris Pine, who radiates a simple and clear-eyed goodness that “Outlaw King” uses as an excuse not to develop the character any further (a fatal mistake in a movie that wants to privilege a single man at the expense of several myths). And two: Because he doesn’t force Elizabeth to have sex with him on their wedding night. As the film will later suggest, the standards of chivalry were a bit lower back then. Also — as the film will suggest during the scene in which Robert and Elizabeth do finally consummate their marriage — foreplay may not have been invented yet.
Crowned Robert I by what’s left of the Scottish church, the outlaw king sets about trying to unify a splintered country. He acquires a dozen allies in the process of doing so, each one of whom demands his own episode. There’s James Douglas (a feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s defined by his flair for stabbing people really fast with a sword, and a subplot in which he retakes his family castle. There’s Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran), the token redhead who acts all tough and yells about freedom. There are several other characters — some of them probably also have names.
All of these people are jumbled into various skirmishes against the English, and while the battle scenes between them are often flecked with striking images (including a memorable shot of knights on horseback chasing a boat into the sea), the film does a spectacularly poor job of contextualizing them in the greater conflict, or anchoring them to any particular dramatic purpose. At one point, “Outlaw King” flirts with wartime ethics, and questions the nobility of playing fair against a dirty opponent. When the English go low, the Scottish have to sink to similar depths in order to stand a chance.
Alas, even in a movie so drawn out that it feels like watching the Wars of Scottish Independence in real time, there simply isn’t time to develop such ideas into something more than a passing thought. There are far too many characters to flesh out on both sides of the fight, and Prince Edward is the only one who gets his due (perhaps because Howle’s performance is so dense with impotent rage that Mackenzie couldn’t help but hone in on it). In a production with such a robust budget, it’s a shame that the script can’t afford everyone the time to justify their presence.
The craft on display is often as undeniable as the cast that Mackenzie has assembled to bring it all to life, but “Outlaw King” is a moribund piece of storytelling. It’s too big to be an intimate portrait of a reluctant leader, and not big enough to effectively contextualize that leader’s role in the war he was born to fight. The blood flows like wine (even if much of it comes from horses), but precious little of it is spilled to productive ends. And while Robert the Bruce is a real man, and a good man at that, he’s just not a very interesting one. You believe in him more than you do his struggle. For all of its vanity and mythicism, that’s not something you could ever say about “Braveheart.” And that’s why that film works as a sweeping war drama, and this one doesn’t even come close.
“Outlaw King” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix on November 9th.