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Outlaw King is a purposeful but empty bid for Netflix’s filmmaking legitimacy

Outlaw King is a purposeful but empty bid for Netflix’s filmmaking legitimacy


Chris Pine stars in a grim and bloody historical epic that’s the definition of a prestige picture, but it can only bring Netflix prestige on the big screen

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Photo courtesy of TIFF

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally posted in September, in conjunction with the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s November 9th Netflix release.

Netflix is currently fighting a battle on at least three fronts. Even in the wake of a huge number of freshly launched competitors, the streaming giant has a serious advantage in the war to carve out and retain a sizable paying audience. Its owners got into the streaming business early, achieved a high rate of public awareness, and built a strong user base. Its second front — producing and owning its own memorable, original content to secure its success, irrespective of the whims of studio licensing departments — has also been ambitious and largely successful. Today, Netflix is investing billions of dollars in buying and making titles and then marketing them into name recognition.

But its third front — achieving legitimacy as a production studio among audiences and its more established peers — has been more elusive. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu were once considered illegitimate upstarts in the film world (and they still are in some sectors, considering the Cannes Film Festival’s anti-streaming position earlier this year), but they are rapidly becoming seen as just another kind of standard studio. But Netflix’s rival Amazon Studios beat it to the first Best Picture Academy Award nomination for a streaming service in 2017, with Manchester by the Sea.

Netflix doesn’t want to undercut its own service by forcing people to leave home to watch its movies

Apart from a few more minor Oscar nods, Netflix struggled to have the same kind of impact on film that it’s had on television. Many of the releases it heavily billed and oversold, like Bright or the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, were disappointments. And the films it’s quietly bought and slapped onto the service without fanfare, like The Cloverfield Paradox, have left Netflix looking like a dumping ground for studio castoffs.

The service is also facing a fundamental problem: for its films to be taken seriously by the industry, they need to play in theaters long enough to qualify for awards. And for them to get widespread distribution, they need to play ahead of their online release, instead of launching on both platforms on the same day. Netflix understandably doesn’t want to undercut its own service by forcing people to leave home and pay extra fees to watch its movies, but theater owners have been reluctant to book Netflix films, knowing subscribers will just stay home to watch instead. Theater owners boycotting Netflix films to protest day-and-date simultaneous releases has forced the company to buy limited theater access (in industry parlance, “four-walling” its films), and consider acquiring a theater chain outright to get around owners’ reluctance. And recently, Netflix has started to shift is strategy, debuting some films in theaters as it chases Oscars.

The predicament leaves projects like David Mackenzie’s historical epic Outlaw King in an uncomfortable zone. The Netflix-financed film is the definition of a prestige project: a grim, expensive visual epic that’s more admirable than enjoyable. Given its vast, echoing Scottish vistas, its immense and bloody battles, and its virtuoso filmmaking ambition, it was clearly designed to be seen on the big screen and to command respect for the team behind the scenes. Netflix is is pushing the film out to a handful of scattered theaters in a few major cities, but that’s a deeply frustrating solution in this case. The people who do have strong appetites for a relentlessly grim historical saga like Outlaw King are going to want to see it live up to its full potential on the big screen. Possibly more than any Netflix original movie to date, it’s a swaggeringly huge film that demands to be seen on a screen that fits the size of its story.

What’s the genre?

Historical drama. Much in the spirit of films like Rob Roy or Braveheart, Outlaw King is a battle-by-battle tour through a specific era of intense and bitter combat. In its opening, it starts to feel like a cinematic answer to Game of Thrones, with a tyrannical ruling faction met by behind-the-scenes intrigue for the crown. But before long, it’s just a muddy slog from one terrible massacre to the next, building up to a vast and horrifying battle on an emotionally shattering scale.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

What’s it about?

The film opens in Scotland in 1304, as English king Edward I (Stephen Dillane, aka Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) forces the Scottish nobility to accept him as their king as well. After the death of the previous Scottish king, the nobility was heavily divided over who would succeed him, and they sought Edward’s counsel. Instead, he used their divisions against them and took the country for himself. Nobles like Robert the Bruce (Star Trek and Wonder Woman’s Chris Pine) chafe under Edward’s heavy taxes and casual brutality toward the Scots, and almost immediately, they begin planning a rebellion. The resistance of William Wallace (Mel Gibson’s hero character in Braveheart) galvanizes the people and then Robert into action. The rebellion has vicious consequences for his small army almost immediately.

Robert’s gambit is backed by the Scottish Catholic Church since England’s Church is trying to absorb and disenfranchise them. Even Robert’s new wife Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) — a spirited Englishwoman gifted to him, against both of their wills, as a political boon — winds up supporting the righteousness of his cause. But many of his fellow nobles tire of war, they have their own agendas for power, or they simply don’t agree with Robert’s personal claim to the throne. Few of them choose to back him, which leaves him fighting a messy, desperate war against Edward’s men — particularly his son Edward II (Billy Howle, billed as “the Prince of Wales,” probably to avoid confusion), who’s struggling to prove himself in the wake of his father’s contempt.

Outlaw King largely plays out in battles and retaliations, in clashes both accidental and carefully planned, and in charges and retreats and recriminations afterward. Apart from the occasional retrenching scene to clarify why the characters are pushing forward in the face of seemingly impossible odds, past a certain point, it’s mostly just one gritty, gory combat after another, right up to a turning point that’s still far from an actual conclusion.

What’s it really about?

One of Outlaw King’s larger problems is that it doesn’t really develop a strong or meaningful theme. In past films like the intense prison drama Starred Up, the celebrated neo-Western Hell or High Water (also starring Chris Pine), and the swoony science fiction love story Perfect Sense, director David Mackenzie has explored fairly complicated and nuanced relationships, largely between people who are bound together in ways they resent. Characters in his dramas usually have a conflict between what they need from other people and what they’re actually likely to get. They often feel responsibilities to other people that they can’t bring themselves to shirk. His central characters are predominantly men, for whom these particular ties may be particularly complicated because so many of them are angry and repressed, trying to live up to their own images of masculinity while fighting back the softer emotions that might help them acknowledge their own needs.

compared to Mackenzie’s best work, ‘Outlaw King’ is plodding and artless

Outlaw King has plenty of the right pieces in play to make this kind of personally enriched story possible, but compared to Mackenzie’s best work, it’s plodding and artless. It only reaches for that kind of subversive emotional complexity in the cold war between the contemptuous Edward and his flailing son, who resents his father but also desperately wants to impress him.

And they get comparatively little screen time compared to Robert, whose relationships with his men are simple and straightforward. James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) follows him out of hope of regaining his family lands, while Irish expat Angus Macdonald (Tony Curran) seems to be more of a true-believer loyalist, and Robert’s brothers apparently operate out of family loyalty and respect. But apart from James’ rabid devotion to his personal cause, individuals’ motivations for warfare remain largely unexplored, leaving most characters as blandly impenetrable and interchangeable, differentiated mostly by the length of their ragged beards.

Robert’s relationship with his new bride is slightly more complicated since he’s still mourning his first wife, Isabella, who died giving birth to their daughter, Marjorie. But the connection between Robert and Elizabeth also proceeds along straight, predictable lines, from an uncomfortable first meeting on the occasion of their wedding to a slow-burn romance-novel passion. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about their simple love story or the cause-driven loyalty of Robert’s followers or the way other nobles reject his campaign for their own reasons. It’s just that it all comes across as a fairly simple, diagrammatic retelling of history, without any sense of richer or more resonant ideas behind it.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Is it good?

It’s certainly directed with plenty of verve, particularly the final bloody battle at Loudoun Hill, which broadens the scope from “a handful of men careening around the countryside fighting tragic skirmishes” levels of conflict to “hundreds of shrieking horses being ripped apart on-screen” levels. For sheer spectacle — again, spectacle that demands full-scale theatrical projection, if only so viewers can get some sense of the 8K Panavision detail — it’s striking and impressive, the kind of fully committed crash of bodies and weapons that feels like a repudiation of war, rather than a glorification. Outlaw King looks costly, from the costumes to the bleak Scottish setting to the endless parade of burning castles as Robert wages his no-chivalry-allowed war across the countryside. But there’s a telling lack of variety to it. It’s a series of pitiless, wearying battles that leaves heaps of ragged, filthy corpses everywhere the story goes.

When ‘Outlaw King’ succeeds, it’s largely in its moments of pure art

When Outlaw King succeeds, it’s largely in its moments of pure art. After one particularly devastating loss — the latest in a long string of them — Robert clings to the side of a boat full of wounded, shaken men and softly begins singing a traditional Scottish song, which his compatriots slowly take up in chorus. That moment — when a shattered Robert slowly finds his center again as a leader by reminding himself of his patriotic purpose, then rallying his men’s sentiment — is worth half a dozen of the movie’s elaborately staged combat sequences. Music is strikingly important throughout Outlaw King, as Mackenzie captures the way a long-ago culture shared emotions through lullabies and marching tunes.

But moments of beauty and specificity like this are few and far between, and too much of it just rolls out like a single, bloody banner, each cut from the same generic cloth. Viewers skipping from chapter to chapter when they view this film at home could be forgiven for thinking it’s completely uniform throughout, just a long chain of curt speeches, battlefield axe murderers, and bloody, filthy men staring at each other in bleak despair. Mackenzie may be making a point about the exhausting aspects of war or the protracted and miserable nature of the Scottish wars of succession in general, but while Outlaw King is a spectacle worthy of the big screen, its personal and emotional ambitions seem disappointingly small.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

What should it be rated?

There’s a short sex scene and a brief full-frontal scene of Robert, as Chris Pine washes the grime off himself in a river after a particularly narrow escape. The moment, a few distant seconds of wang in an otherwise unremarkable wide shot, has gotten a thoroughly embarrassing amount of attention, including in a Variety video interview where Pine tersely explains the symbolic significance of his junk while giving off the bristling air of a man who really wants to punch the next person who asks him about it.

But Outlaw King is an unquestionable R for the extreme wall-to-wall violence, in which men are hacked apart, gutted alive, speared, stabbed, and sliced in a ghastly profusion of ways. The final battle is a draining clash of bodies — particularly the bodies of horses, who die in vast and grotesque numbers in this film.

How can I actually watch it?

Outlaw King is now streaming on Netflix, and as of November 9th, it’s playing in a few relatively obscure theaters in major cities.