Outlaw King (2018)

Directed by: David Mackenzie
Runtime: 2hrs, 1min.
Action, Biography, Drama
Reviewed by: Zach Owens

“Outlaw King” is Netflix’s latest film and it’s a good one. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call it the best looking Medieval film in at least a decade.

The film opens with a spectacular 8-minute long take that begins with a reluctant Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) pledging fealty to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane), then moves on to a brief sword fight between Robert and Edward’s loathsome and overly self confident son (Billy Howle), before ending with an enormous catapult hurtling a flaming boulder at a distant castle.

The lost art of the long take is a tricky one, so it’s particularly special when a director dares to tackle one. They require an enormous amount of planning, precise acting and, most importantly, extremely precise timing. Here it involved multiple conversations taking place at the same time with the camera moving and panning between them, always capturing the most vital part of each conversation.

To say the film doesn’t quite try for anything so spectacular later feels, at once, like an honest compliment to the ambition of this scene, but also a bit of an undersell for the rest of the film. I’m not a filmmaker, but I can’t imagine there’s an easy way to shoot hundreds of men clashing swords, axes and spears – some on horseback, others on foot – while knee deep in mud and earth. But the film features numerous well shot battle scenes before the end credits roll. Yet it’s the opening long take that’s likely to be the most memorable.

In fact, it’s as this long take is playing out that you know you’re in for something special, not because it presents fast paced action, but because it’s evident you’re in the hands of a talented director with a specific vision. And yet it required an additional edit after its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but before its official Netflix release. Scottish director David Mackenzie is said to have cut around 20 minutes from the original version of the film to tighten things up. And by all accounts the new edit makes it a remarkably better film.

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The story is a true David versus Goliath story in which Robert the Bruce learns to use stealth and cunning to outsmart and defeat King Edward I and his overwhelming numbers in order to regain the Scottish homeland.

Mackenzie handles all of these characters with care, particularly Robert and his wife, played by Florence Pugh. The film, despite its number of action sequences, feels, at times, like a character study. Few are the war films that take the time to allow the leader, the man that plunged the world into chaos, to reflect on what his decision has meant for the people who believe in him. Yet “Outlaw King” frequently focuses on the face of its central character – played extremely well by Chris Pine – to allow the subtext that his decision has lead to the brutal deaths of many of his followers to wash over his face.

But Mackenzie does other smart things with the film as well. For instance, as Robert is deciding to take up the crown and go to war, he cuts back and forth between the two camps preparing for the coming war. It not only sets the stage and advances the story, but gives us a sense of what the leaders of the two camps are like.

We know Robert Bruce’s goal is a noble one, but history is more complicated than that. The weight of his decision is always in focus because of how many lives are affected by it, including those of his people and those closest to him.

Mackenzie may be known for indie films and 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” but with “Outlaw King” he’s proven himself capable of pulling off big budget films with style. My hope is we see more from him soon.

 

4.5 Stars

 

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