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Non-Review Review: Outlaw King

Outlaw King opens with a very impressive tracking shot, or what at least appears to be a very impressive tracking shot. The sequence lasts more than eight minutes, wherein the audience follows the action at the Scottish surrender to King Edward I. The camera follows various actors at they move through the scene, from inside the tent with King Edward I to the congress outside in the mud. The scene features an impressive sword fight, before heading back into the tent and out the other side, to the point where Kind Edward I has a massive trebuchet waiting.

The Scottish have surrendered. The revolution has failed. The lords of the region have bowed before the British Crown and sworn fealty to the throne. This gigantic instrument of war seems redundant, pointless. It has no purpose in this particular situation. Nevertheless, King Edward insists that the trebuchet be loaded, and discharged towards a prominent Scottish castle on the nearby hill. Edward explains that this is a gesture of authority, making it clear that the surrender is “final.” He adds, “Also, it took three months to build. So I don’t want to waste it.”

Great Scot!

It is an interesting introductory scene for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is incredibly technically impressive. Director David Mackenzie is really just showing off here, demonstrating how much control he has over the film, how carefully managed the choreography is, how perfectly he can time the rhythms of the action to the movement of his camera. The introductory scene very skillfully introduces most of the major players and key dynamics that will inform the action that follows, in manner that is graceful and never overwhelming. It’s technically impressive.

At the same time, the entire sequence feels just a little bit like Edward’s gigantic trebuchet and perhaps even a little bit like the film as a whole. It is a wonderfully constructed piece of work that feels over-elaborate and over-complicated for what it is doing. Outlaw is a beautiful film underpinned by some intriguing ideas about power and violence, much like Mackenzie’s work on Hell or High Water. Unfortunately, Outlaw King lacks the warmth and humanity of Hell or High Water. Like that absurd trebuchet, it feels a little overly ornate and never entirely sure of its purpose.

A Brucie Bonus.

To be clear Outlaw King is visually impressive. A lot of this is likely down to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who has a talent for blending naturalistic cinematography with incredible beauty. Ackroyd has worked with directors like Kathryn Bigalow and Paul Greengrass, so it is no surprise that he should click so effectively with Mackenzie, who has a similarly grounded and gritty perspective. The framing is excellent, with Ackroyd and Mackenzie knowing how to put a shot together in a way to draw the audience’s eyes in the right direction.

The world of Outlaw King looks a lot more tangible than most period epics, a lot closer to a world with which the audience might interact or know. A lot of this is down to the wonderful location work by location scouts Barry Laird and Pete Murphy. While the film naturally includes computer-generated imagery in the way that most modern historical epics must, the production team make a conscious effort to use real locations rather than sets and employ natural lighting where possible to give the film a very material texture.

Been workin’ on the chainmail gang.

This is not suggest that Outlaw King is sparse or cold. The film unfolds in Scotland, and is quite honest about the region’s weather and geography. The characters spend a long time trekking through muddy roads and into wet forests, trying to cross large lakes in the shadow of misty hills. However, Mackenzie ensures that the audience understands the raw beauty of the natural environment, perhaps to underscore what Robert is supposedly fighting for. The closing scenes in particular look like they might have been lifted from a Terrence Malick film.

Outlaw King then cleverly contrasts these naturalistic environments, which are often dim and dirty in the way that real spaces tend to be dim and dirty, with the finer trappings of the upper classes who lived in this world. Again, the film is dazzling from a technical standpoint, with incredible work done by costume designer Jane Petrie. Outlaw King makes a point to emphasis the ostentatious and ceremonial aspects of Outlaw King. As much time as the film might spend in the mud and the dirt, the crown for which Robert is fighting always gleams and glistens.

A crowning moment.

This is as much a thematic point as an aesthetic one. Outlaw King is a story fascinated with the divide that exists between notions of civility and the realities of existential conflict. In its own way, this positions itself as a spiritual successor to Hell or High Water, a movie with a somewhat apocalyptic perspective on eroding civic institutions that threatened to swallow the European settlers whole. Hell of High Water suggested a breakdown of law and order on the frontier, through neglect and through decay, through the erosion of civic institutions and faith in authority.

Outlaw King plays with similar ideas. The reality of what Robert the Bruce seeks to accomplish is repeatedly juxtaposed with the illusions of a rigid civil society. The contrast between the bright expensive costumes and the cold stony surroundings literalises that dichotomy. The royalty in Outlaw King seem to believe that they live in a civilised time, one governed by ritual and by rite, by custom and by expectation. There is a proper way to do things, a code of conduct to be followed, that will ensure that the proper outcome can be reached.

There can be no Dillane.

In fact, Outlaw King suggests that even wars and revolutions can be expected to conform to these systems and rules. King Edward seems almost happy that Robert attempted to rebel against him, because it reinforced that system. “I’m proud of you, Robert,” Edward assures the young man who would be king. “You had the courage to stand up to me. And the wisdom to stand down.” Even when Robert attempts to stage a coup, declaring himself King of Scotland, the local church insists that ritual is followed. “We need legitimacy. Particularly now.”

The opening act of Outlaw King juxtaposes the elaborate rituals of the English and Scottish royal houses. Robert’s coronation on a ritual site is juxtaposed with a similarly stylised ritual including two swans at the English throne. These sequences are intriguing, with Mackenzie shooting them in such a way as to draw the audience’s eye to how strange these ritual aspects are, to let enough individuality and humanity to creep in at the edges to emphasis how weird it must be to have to do these things in this way for them to be considered done properly.

Into the woods…

Inevitably, of course, Outlaw King builds to the idea that these rules and systems are all an elaborate farce. Robert might have been able to rebel and surrender in accordance with custom, and might even have been able to declare himself ruling monarch in accordance with custom, but the whole point of these rules is to favour the status quo. Edward is only pleased at Robert’s expected act of childish defiance because it exists to reinforce his own authority through his response to it. When Robert rebels again, going off script, Edward refuses to be bound by those rules.

When the English march north in response to Robert’s coronation, the audience is told that they are “unbound by the laws of chivalry. They’re flying the dragon banner.” The implications of this quickly become clear, with no respect for the rules of engagement and no expectation of basic decency. “Kill the prisoners,” instructs a commander after an especially brutal battle. “Let the Scots see what comes of pledging fealty to their new king.”

And the horse he rode in on…

Like the lead characters in Hell or High Water, Robert inevitably finds himself forced to fight outside the standard rules of warfare. With fifty men at his disposal, he must organise a campaign against thousands of enemy soldiers. “No more chivalry,” Bruce advises his followers. “Now we fight like wolves.” He later clarifies, “They would take our land. But they don’t know our land.” Brutal ambushes become the order of the day, deadly traps, weaponised manipulation.

There is a rawness and a brutality to Outlaw King that seems to brutally mock the idea of civility in war or revolution, the idea of rules governing behaviour in an existential struggle. Faced with the prospect of betrayal, Robert murders a potential ally on holy ground, violating one of the most sacred rules of conduct. At other points, in battle, broadswords are clumsily thrown like axes in an act of desperation, while chainmail is fashioned into a makeshift knuckleduster.

Battlefield turf.

All of this is interesting in a broad theoretical sense, and worth evaluating in the context of Hell or High Water. What had seemed apocalyptic in Hell or High Water seems more Hobbesian in Outlaw King. In Outlaw King, there is no sense that the system ever worked and has broken down through neglect like in Hell or High Water. Instead, Outlaw King adopts a much bleaker perspective, arguing that perhaps civilisation was always just a lie designed to disguise the brutality of the world in which people live.

However, the issue with Outlaw King is not the brutality. Instead, it’s the fact that so much of the film feels dramatically inert. The film lacks the humanity or warmth that made Hell or High Water such a compelling piece of work. This is particularly frustrating given that Mackenzie is reteaming with actor Chris Pine. Pine is an actor with natural charisma and charm, but it gets lost in Outlaw King. It is not merely a matter of Robert the Bruce seeming intensely focused or single-minded. It is a larger sense that the film never understands the man.

Pine lookin’ fine.

Mackenzie wisely avoids the sort of broad characterisation employed in more conventional historical movies like, say, Braveheart. None of the characters in Outlaw King are so broadly drawn and so clearly defined as hero or villain. In fact, Stephen Dillane even has some wry charm to him as King Edward, presented as a monstrous fiend in Braveheart. However, Outlaw King never figures out what it might do to replace the cartoonish characterisation of Braveheart. It avoids reducing Robert’s psychology to a one-note revenge narrative, but never substitutes anything in its stead.

As a result, Robert seems very vague and very abstract. There are moments of humanity in the film, but they are largely unrelated to the plot. Robert has some nice moments with his daughter, and Pine works very well in the handful of scenes that he shares with Florence Pugh as his arranged bride. These moments hint at a person beneath the myth. However, the film never clearly articulates why Robert is so dedicated to Scottish nationalism, nor why he would be such a good choice to lead the nation.

Above the fray.

In fact, the film arguably takes a few shortcuts with its supporting characters in order to avoid having to actually develop any motivation or characterisation as it relates to the plot. The opening scenes establish that Robert is locked in a battle with John Comyn over the right to rule Scotland. This is a potentially interesting set-up, in that it would require the film to assert why Robert is the better choice. Instead, the film opts to immediately and effectively establish Comyn as a jerk (towards the serving staff no less!) in order to avoid developing Robert. It’s a strange choice.

As a result, the actual narrative of the film never works in the same way as the thematic elements or the visual aspects. Outlaw King offers a compelling vision of a battle by an oppressed people to reclaim their homeland from imperial invaders, but it never manages to dig beneath the surface.

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